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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Shadid Finalist: Lauren Wolfe, The Guardian

The village that cannot sleep 

Unknown men in an impoverished village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were kidnapping dozens of girls at night, gang-raping them, and leaving them in a desiccated cassava field. Aged 18 months to 11 years old, the girls were “destroyed,” they told me. For two years, I’d been the only Western journalist reporting on these rapes—which allegedly involved sorcery—when I realized that international media attention might bring justice to this village. I went to DRC to do a long-form story for The Guardian.

After days of immersive reporting, I identified the alleged perpetrator, which no one had seemed to be able to do in all that time. The man was a member of parliament running a kind of makeshift militia. I confirmed that an investigator, with whom I began an intense journalist-source relationship— had also identified the same suspect. He and I were the only ones who knew, he said. I consequently agreed with him that I would not reveal anything publicly until arrests were made. They would be imminent, he said.

Five months later, no arrests had been made and four more girls had been raped. I began to grapple with the hardest decision of my career: How could I publish a story that might do anything to stop this horrifying violence? Sharing too much information or publishing at all could bring harm not only to the investigation itself but to the families being victimized. Do I wait until arrests are made, despite the fact that there has been no move toward making them in nearly three years? I made a decision finally. The results were immediate.

I published this first, unexpected piece, an op-ed, and then I went ahead with the long-form piece I’d originally set out to write:

The conflicting values encountered in reporting

A Foreign Policy magazine article I’d done in 2014 on the little girls of the afflicted village of Kavumu had the impact of pushing the government to announce it would begin a “national investigation” into the violence. After six months, I discovered that there were no resources given to an investigation, just a single officer tasked with solving the crimes. It was then that I decided to visit the country and tell this story in as large a publication as possible, in the hopes of pushing justice forward.

I went to Congo thinking that the perpetrator had to be a powerful, untouchable local man. Little did I believe that I would identify him, but my reporting quickly led to an MP named Frederic Batumike Rugimbanya, who had illegally taken over a massive plantation near Kavumu. He was known to practice sorcery. One evening, I wrote the name of my suspect in my notebook and handed it over to an official. He scooted to the edge of his chair and shook my hand as his normally serious face broke into a huge grin. I had the right man, he said. And he was about to take Batumike down. The official confided details of the investigation—forensic findings and more—while I pledged to hold my story.

I proceeded to meet with dozens of parents and their children, interviewing each girl in the presence of their mother or father. Just being in the village was dangerous for both them and me; I’d concocted an “official” story of why I was in the country that had nothing to do with the rapes. Regardless, I’d already been detained for a day by the Congolese intelligence services.

After a few weeks of reporting, I returned to New York and wrote my long-form article for The Guardian. I waited on the police investigator’s go-ahead to publish. And waited. And waited. In that time four more girls were raped. I started to weigh my options on whether to publish before the arrests were made—how much could an article do to foster justice in a place where it has been so absent? How could I publish and not betray or give away my source, who would be threatened with death by multiple parties, according to different NGO contacts, despite the fact that he’d said it was all right to use his name? How would I ensure that absolutely no one would be further hurt by bringing international attention to these crimes?

The options considered to resolve the conflict

The safest thing to do was wait for the arrests before publishing, my sources all agreed. But as one rape after another continued in Kavumu, I needed to find a compromise. Doing nothing was accomplishing nothing. I weighed the role I had to play in this as a member of the media. My NGO contacts were adamant that publishing could hurt not only my sources but also the investigation. But the fact that the official was ready to make the arrests, yet was not being given warrants by his higher-ups, told me something was amiss. Batumike was a man with probable connections 900 miles across the country in the capital, Kinshasa. It was entirely possible that there was political string-pulling going on as a contentious election season was erupting in national protests. President Joseph Kabila was (and is still) attempting to hold on to power, despite having already served his constitutionally allowable two terms. My understanding was that he needed to keep local allegiances with MPs in his party or those in his alliance. Batumike’s party was in his alliance.

I considered publishing my long-form story as written: Naming Batumike, using my police source. I wondered whether to publish without naming the suspect but just saying that the police had a suspect. I struggled over whether to name the official, and how high in government to place blame. I wondered whether to wait longer—and hope that the government would finally make arrests. I was stuck between the ideal of maintaining my agreement with the colonel and the desire to put an end to these crimes. Finally, I came up with a remarkably effective solution.

The final decision and the rationale for making it

I knew that international media pressure from my Foreign Policy piece had scared the government the year before. I came up with a solution: I may not be able to publish Batumike’s name yet—in order to not give him a chance to run—but I could publish something, something that would point a finger squarely at the Congolese government for its inaction.

I contacted my Guardian editors. I wanted to do an op-ed before we ran the big piece. I planned to call out the government for sitting on information about the clearest possible suspect and not acting on it. I spoke with a close UN source; she agreed that it was the right thing to do. Despite the reservations of my NGO contacts, I trusted not only my own gut on this one. I know how to tell a delicate story while protecting the identities of rape survivors, witnesses, and sources. NGOs, I have long known, do not always use the same methods as the media to provoke action and create transparency. We all, however, wanted justice for the girls and for the violence to stop. We each had a role to play. I knew I had to try.
The op-ed went up on June 20. Four hours later, suddenly, the warrants to arrest the MP and 67 of his men were issued. Twelve hours later the men were all in custody. The investigator emailed me to say: “We have made the arrests. You can go ahead and publish everything now.”

In my nearly 20 years as a reporter and editor, I have always had a solid belief that our work can and must highlight suffering, injustice, and under-told stories. What happened in this small village in DRC reaffirmed that journalism done exactingly and without fear can create change for the public good. I began the process of reworking my long-form piece to reveal all without identifying my central source, as I’d learned my connection to him was already bringing him threats from his superiors, who did not want him to get (much deserved) credit for the arrests.

In August, my long-form story went out in the print edition of the newspaper. I protected the identity of my local sources, and allowed the voices of the survivors to be heard around the world. Not a single girl in Kavumu has been abducted or raped since.