UN peacekeepers walking tightrope of chaos in DR Congo

 By James Stairs

Goma, DR Congo – Standing near the Corniche border crossing between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, Rogatien Lubula watches several transport trucks carrying blue-helmeted soldiers rumble past in a cloud of dust.

‘My country has been destroyed,’ the 65-year-old trader complains.

‘With all of their weapons,’ he says, motioning towards the United Nations vehicles, ‘they could have stopped the war long ago if they weren’t more interested in sitting around eating peanuts and making money.’

‘I don’t think [the war] will ever end,’ he says. ‘They don’t want it to.’

It is a common refrain amongst Congolese, who have lived through 15 years of unrest that began with the sudden arrival of millions of Rwandan Hutus after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Since then, rebel groups have fought the national forces, bringing misery to the civilian population.

UN peacekeepers were once a welcome sight in the country, Lubula says, but have lost the trust of the locals.

MONUC (the French acronym for the peacekeeping mission) arrived in the DR Congo in 1999 with a small observer mission. Two years later, soldiers hit the ground.

The force rapidly became the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, with 17,500 soldiers and an annual budget surpassing 1 billion dollars.

But despite the peacekeeping presence, as many as 5 million people died as a result of the 1998-2003 war and smaller conflicts in its aftermath.

Humanitarian organizations estimate that millions have been forced from their homes and hundreds of thousands raped.

MONUC’s efforts have more often than not been overshadowed by scandal.

UN forces have face several accusations, from failing to protect civilians to trading guns for minerals.

In 2004, the mission was rocked when UN soldiers were accused of rape, demanding sex in exchange for food and running prostitution rings.

The force came under fire again last November after witnesses testified it failed to intervene during rebel massacres in Kiwanja, 80 kilometres north of Goma, the provincial capital of the north- eastern North Kivu province.

Some 150 civilians were reportedly executed less than two kilometres away from a UN base.

Several times in recent months, angry mobs have attacked MONUC bases and convoys, pelting them with stones.

The latest criticism was aimed at MONUC’s inability to protect civilians from Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) on Wednesday blasted MONUC for doing nothing during recent LRA raids in the north-eastern Haut-Uele province.

MSF says 900 civilians have been massacred in dozens of raids on villages since Christmas and that MONUC has simply remained in its base.

MONUC spokespeople, however, say that the peacekeepers lack the necessary resources to intervene.

Despite the controversies, the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the mission in December, directing the force to step up its protection of civilians.

Analysts predicted the opportunity for redemption as 3,000 more troops and police officers were authorized.

But the optimism was short-lived. Countries willing to send soldiers have proven hard to find and on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon publicly appealed for troops.

At the same time, another political storm has hit the beleaguered mission.

On January 16, the Congolese government and several rebel groups announced a peace agreement. Days later, Rwandan troops crossed the border under a deal with the Congolese government to attack Hutu militias.

However, their first action was to arrest former ally, rebel Tutsi leader Laurent Nkunda, whose National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) battled government forces at the end of last year.

In Nkunda’s place, Bosco Ntaganda emerged as leader, signing a deal to join the Congolese army and creating a major dilemma for MONUC.

Ntaganda, 35, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers during the 1998-2003 war.

Witnesses also testified that he was the commander of CNDP forces responsible for the massacres in Kiwanja in November.

Last week, the UN announced it would join the new operations, but only in planning and logistics.

‘MONUC was cleverly backed into a corner,’ Jerede Malonga, a local human rights activist says. ‘They [MONUC] were told to either support the operation or go home. They chose to stay.’

On Wednesday, the UN reiterated its unease about working alongside Ntaganda, releasing a statement noting that it ‘will not participate in any transaction or operation in which Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda will play a role at any level.’

The UN decision is fraught with risk, says Arthur Kepel, an analyst with the think tank International Crisis Group.

‘If things go wrong, I’d be interested to see how MONUC explains its role,’ he says.

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