/ 12 September 2003

Bangladeshi force settles in Bunia

After two months of relative calm in Bunia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) most war-torn town, the 1 500-strong French-led peacekeeping force called in to protect it in June completed its withdrawal last week, amid grave fears among local residents about their security.

Bunia is the capital of Ituri, a vast province spread over the DRC’s mountainous north-east and the country’s most persistent troublespot. While much of the DRC has been moving slowly towards peace this year, Ituri has been the scene of some of the worst atrocities committed since the war began five years ago.

But Bunia residents say the interim French-led peacekeeping force, supported by soldiers from Canada and South Africa, did a reasonable job of keeping order in the town — at least in its central district. What they fear now is that the United Nations’s more permanent mission, currently being shipped in to replace them, won’t be able to continue the job.

More than 50 000 people are estimated to have been killed in ethnically motivated violence in Ituri since 1999 as militias from the rival Hema and Lendu tribes — plied with free guns by an assortment of invading foreign armies — continue to massacre each other along with countless civilians.

Fighting has often encroached on Bunia’s town centre, regularly forcing the majority of its 150 000 inhabitants to flee.

“Even now you can see the town is not secure,” says Lolo Bosuo, former owner of an Internet café recently looted by an armed gang. “You can stay on the main street here, but you wander out by less than half a kilometre, the militias are back. They are hiding in the bush, then doing hit-and-run — ambushing people and dragging them off to be killed.”

Top of the list of fears for the people of Bunia is that the new 4 000-odd mostly Bangladeshi (but also some Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani and Uruguayan) UN peacekeepers won’t be able to communicate with them. They don’t speak French and they certainly don’t speak Swahili or Lingala.

Without a common language, residents say, the peacekeepers won’t be able to respond effectively to their cries of help when trouble flairs up.

Most of all, Bunia residents worry that they won’t be able to tell the Bangladeshi peacekeepers when and where the region’s countless militia groups are active. “I have no English. They have no French. So what happens if I try and tell them my brother is being killed in the road?” asks Bosuo.

The language barrier was given as the main reason why France felt it had to be at the head of the interim peacekeeping force for Bunia. French ambassador to Uganda — the logistical base for the operation —Bernard Thiant told the Mail & Guardian: “The force needed to be Francophone so that we can talk with the people of Bunia. One of the reasons the old Uruguayan force [deployed in April] failed to stop the massacres was that they couldn’t understand what people were saying.”

Yet officials in charge of the UN’s second mission to the country, Monuc II, have disputed this complaint. Speaking at a press conference in the Ugandan capital Kampala, the UN secretary general’s special envoy to the DRC, William Swing, said, “French-speaking troops are deliberately stationed throughout the mission’s postings.”

The Bangladeshi soldiers also say they can handle the language problem. “All our forces have links to French speakers. They know what to do if they are struggling to understand a plea for help,” says Major Rashid Jamil, security chief at Bunia airfield.

“We are very sensitive to this issue of the language barrier,” explains Usman Dabo, overall coordinator of the UN mission, “that’s why Monuc II has a number of translators in the field as well as a special Francophone unit to serve as a link.”

Dabo thinks language concerns are overplayed. “All the military are equipped with radio to Monuc II’s central offices in Bunia. If a soldier is somewhere far from base and someone comes up to him but he doesn’t understand, they can radio the office and hand over the microphone.”