WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2017 — Twelve Congolese militiamen who raped nearly 50 young girls were convicted Wednesday in a historic and precedent-setting trial in Democratic Republic of Congo. One was a Member of Parliament who masterminded this mass crime.

Key to this unique victory was the investigative work of Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, a program of the Women’s Media Center.

MP Frederic Batumike Rugimbanya and 11 other men were given multiple life sentences for crimes against humanity, including murder and the rapes of nearly 50 girls age 18 months to 11 yearsover three years. All were residents of Kavumu, a small village in South Kivu province.

This was the first time in the history of DRC that any official or army commander has been convicted of rape, as opposed to courts only convicting underlings. Part of the motive and justification for these rapes and murders, as it emerged in testimony, was the advice of a spiritual advisor that the collection of the blood of virgin girls would help make the militia “impervious to bullets.”

Lauren Wolfe has been reporting on this complex and bizarre story since its beginning with the first rapes four years ago, and she broke the story in the international media in 2015. She was also the first journalist to report Wednesday’s historic convictions.

“I’ve never covered a story this horrifying or this important,” Wolfe said. “I stuck with it for four years because if the world can’t even pay attention to the rape of little girls, what hope is left for humanity? I discovered early on that the Congolese government responds to international media pressure. The press has a critical role to play globally when atrocities are committed.”

Wolfe’s June 2016 op-ed in The Guardian resulted in the arrest within hours of Batumike, plus 67 other men believed to be part of his militia. This was a victory, since the government had delayed the investigation for years — and refused to issue arrest warrants — even though it took Wolfe only a few days in Kavumu to uncover a lead suspect. Her op-ed pointed a finger at the Congolese government for its inaction against Batumike, whom she knew to be a government suspect.

Last year in Kavumu, Wolfe spoke to a number of the girls with their mothers present. She asked them what they wanted her to tell the world. “Tell them we’ve been destroyed,” they said. “And that we want those men destroyed like we have been.”

“It means so much to know that WMC Women Under Siege and our intrepid reporter, Lauren Wolfe helped bring this story to light,” said Gloria Steinem, co-founder of the Women’s Media Center. “Along with the arresting officers, judge, and others whose lives and livelihoods were at risk, Lauren took serious risks to lead these men to justice for their crimes against humanity. This is where journalism matters.”

In a story posted Thursday on the WMC site, Wolfe gives a first-person account of the trial. She reports that during the rapes between 2013 and 2016 a man would enter each girl’s house, kidnap her without waking her family, rape her, and leave her bleeding in a nearby field. Only after the families awakened to find their daughters missing did they spread out in a search party and, in every case, it was too late.

“If anyone ever doubted the ability of journalism to change the world, or bring some measure of justice, this work should make you believe it the power of light over darkness and good over evil as long as you fight like hell to expose the truth,” said WMC President Julie Burton. “I am so proud of Lauren for her tremendous investigative work.”

The trial began November 9, but suffered multiple delays as Batumike and his lawyers brought up procedural issues, and even challenged the judges’ impartiality, thus forcing the court to stop to rule on the matter.

During this trial, a team composed of United Nations departments and Dr. Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital; NGOs such as Trial International, Physicians for Human Rights, and Coopera, a Spanish organization in South Kivu to study primates; teamed up with local prosecutors, civil society leaders, and other local and international experts to make this case a success.

Unprecedented protections were taken to disguise witnesses: head-to-toe cloth coverings, a voice-altering box, and a wall to testify behind. This case “represents an important precedent for submitting to court comprehensive medical-legal evidence collected in a rigorous, methodical, and scientific manner,” said PHR in a Wednesday press release.

Wolfe discussed the verdict in a BBC interview Wednesday. “This actually is a landmark case because it is the first time that a primary commander, in fact, a politician — because he is a local Member of Parliament — has been convicted,” she said. “So that’s an excellent sign of progress.”

Human rights activists hailed the convictions. Yet Wolfe noted that Congo is a place in which there have been very, very few convictions for rape, and zero payouts of reparations to rape survivors. “So while these men’s lives have been destroyed in a way that hopefully pleases the girls, the future is uncertain all around for the people of Kavumu,” she wrote.

“It is hard to express the gratitude I feel toward every doctor, lawyer, psychologist and worker, community leader and judge right now for making this verdict happen. Mostly, though, my gratitude goes to the girls and their families whose bravery in speaking out is beyond words,” Wolfe tweeted after the verdict was announced.

Click here to read more about the trial, the verdict, and what comes next for the girls of Kavumu.

WMC Women Under Siege is a project of The Women’s Media Center. WMC works to make women visible and powerful in the media. We do so by promoting women as decision-makers and as subjects in media; training women to be media-ready and media-savvy; researching and exposing sexism, racism, and fakery in media; and creating original online and on-air journalism.