The UN mission in Congo is the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, costing $1.35bn a year. But instead of putting an end to an epidemic of rape and murder, the force is accused of actively supporting those it was meant to bring to justice
At first glance there is nothing disturbing about the man playing tennis on the red clay courts of the Hotel Karibu. Other guests in the grounds of the hotel walk serenely across its manicured lawns, dine in thatched-roofed rondavels, or sip drinks while admiring Lake Kivu.
But the casual sportsman in this oasis of luxury amid the poverty of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a man the United Nations would prefer did not exist at all.
Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague for allegedly conscripting and sending into battle children under the age of 15. He is also accused of commanding troops responsible for the massacres of civilians, earning him the nickname, The Terminator.
Yet Ntaganda, believed to be 36, not only remains at liberty but serves as a general in an army that has the full backing of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as Monuc. He is the personification of what critics say is a “pact with the devil”. While the eyes of the world are distracted by wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, many believe the thickly forested hills of the eastern DRC are witnessing another shameful chapter in UN peacekeeping that ranks alongside the impotent displays in Srebrenica and Rwanda.
Loss of trust
“I can’t trust Monuc any more,” said a nurse who was last month robbed at gunpoint as she tried to reach injured civilians. “We asked them for help but they said it was not their job. We asked for a convoy to accompany us to the village but they did nothing to protect us.”
The nurse, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, is employed in Goma by the Heal Africa hospital which treats many victims of the violence and was visited by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, last year. But not even a hospital is immune to the lawless excesses of the Monuc-backed Congolese army.
“Two men in uniforms came from a maize field and stopped our car,” said the nurse. “One of them came with a gun and pointed it at us. They asked where we were going and we said we’re nurses going to Nyanbanira. They told us to give them $1 000; if not, they would burn the car.
“We told them this is an emergency car and we’re going to look for injured villagers, but they wouldn’t accept it. They opened the door and took the driver. They took all the money, food, documents and tools. They could have killed us. It’s only God’s miracle that we are still alive.”
She said that the incident happened near Monuc base. “But when we called them to say we’ve been looted, they said, ‘This is not our job.’ It’s not the first time they’ve failed to help us. I don’t see what they’re doing in eastern Congo.”
With a force of 18 500 blue helmet-wearing troops in the DRC, the UN has assembled the biggest peacekeeping operation in the world at a cost of $1,35-billion a year. Monuc has been providing rations, transport, fuel and firepower to the army of the Congolese government (FARDC) in its operations against an exile Rwandan Hutu militia group, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whose leaders took part in the 1994 genocide in DRC’s neighbour.
But the Congolese army stands accused of atrocities against the people it is meant to be protecting. In a series of damning reports, Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of killings and thousands of rapes. Some of the deaths have been particularly vicious: civilians decapitated, chopped by machete, beaten with clubs, shot as they fled or burned alive in their homes. Most of the victims were women, children and elderly people.
Several NGOs such as Oxfam have joined Human Rights Watch’s condemnation of Monuc for supporting an army with blood on its hands.
A leaked report from the UN-mandated Group of Experts found that the military operations had “exacerbated the humanitarian crisis”. Writing in the Guardian last year, Eve Ensler, the author and founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, claimed that “UN peacekeepers [Monuc] are not passively standing by and watching the massacres, but are actually supporting the perpetrators.”
There are political reasons why the Congolese army is falling so dramatically short of military discipline. It had been fighting, and losing, against the renegade general Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi warlord thought to be sponsored by Rwanda. But a year ago Congo and Rwanda struck a secret deal that led to his arrest.
Nkunda’s militia group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), was abruptly legitimised and absorbed by the Congolese army.
Together they would turn their guns on the FDLR. It was a necessary compromise, says the UN, because it might finally give the government enough strength to bring order to this vast and chaotic country.
“The realignment of the CNDP was probably the most significant development here for 15 years,” said Matthew Brubacher, a Monuc political affairs officer. “Last year, before the agreement, the CNDP almost took over Goma. If you can’t beat them, you might as well have them. You can’t defeat them militarily so what’s the choice? Would the NGOs prefer an autonomous military group to continue to be stronger than the army?”
But the merger has been far from smooth, with many former CNDP members refusing to give up their old ways.
Lyn Lusi, Heal Africa’s British-born programme manager, said: “In the peace process they took all the bandits and the militia and the killers from every single group and put them into a uniform, and said, ‘You are now the official army.’ So what do you expect?
“I know that the professional soldiers in the FARDC are disgusted by this. They are now being lumped together with bandits and killers. There are good professional soldiers in the FARDC and they are longing for opportunity and help to clean up their army.”
She added that the UN mission did not fully understand the reality on the ground. “I think Monuc were not aware of what everybody in Congo was aware of,” said Lusi. “They make desktop solutions. They’re sitting in their offices all around the world saying let’s do this, let’s support the national army. But anybody who knew the national army well would have said that’s not enough.”
The tensions have been exacerbated by jealousy over ranks, lack of training and a failure to pay many former CNDP soldiers, who subsequently returned to looting. Monuc claims it is working to resolve these problems.
In the village of Kanyabayonga, a lieutenant-colonel in the Indian army which, with more than 4 000 troops in Congo, makes up the biggest UN peacekeeping contingent in the country, said: “There was an issue about the integrated people not receiving salaries. One battalion rebelled, started firing one night and burned three houses. Our commander stayed overnight to speak to the soldiers and the matter was resolved.”
The colonel, who wished to remain anonymous, added: “The FARDC realised they had to pay soldiers. So the generals are reacting to these issues. Things are changing on the ground but the training will take time.”
But for another village, Luofu, 145km north of Goma, that discipline can not come soon enough. Last year around 1 000 houses were burned down by FDLR rebels, leaving people with only the hybrid Congolese army to turn to. Gilberd Bouyenge, a Catholic priest, said that now the villager’s predicament was little better.
“There is no other army so we must trust them. Some of them rape, but not all of them,” he said.
Monuc has tried to monitor the army’s behaviour more closely, though its peacekeepers are spread thinly in an area the size of California.
In Luofu, Kyalwahi Daniel, who was forced to stand outside his home while inside his wife was raped by rebels, said the peacekeepers’ presence was making a difference. “Since Monuc is here, the army soldiers are afraid of intimidating civilians,” he said. “They know people will go to Monuc and it will send a bad report to their commander.”
There are tentative signs that the worst may be over. Peacekeepers on the ground claim they have seen violence decline during the past six months, and that the Congolese government and military command are finally treating sexual violence seriously by catching and punishing offenders.
UN figures show that the number of internally displaced people in North Kivu province declined from 1,1-million last July to 709 000 by the end of December. Official repatriations of Rwandans trebled last year as more FDLR rebels surrender.
The group’s strength is estimated at around 4 000 and the FDLR is said to still be in control of many mining areas, benefiting from the DRC’s mineral wealth.
DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, has declared that the war is “90% over”, and has called for Monuc to leave in time for the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from Belgium in June. That seems wildly optimistic. Monuc has just begun a revised mission that, mindful of past criticisms, will only support the Congolese army on operations it helps plan.
Alan Doss, the British-born head of Monuc, acknowledged that the Congolese army was guilty of human rights abuses.
“Yes, elements of the Congolese army, in particular some of the newly integrated elements, have been involved in atrocities,” said Doss. “We ourselves have reported on that and made our concerns known to the Congolese armed forces and above, and we’ve withdrawn support from the unit where these claims were made.”
Asked if Monuc had been too hasty to throw its weight behind the army, he said: “Who knows, maybe when you look back a few years from now, you’ll say yes, there were mistakes made, we were aware this was being rushed.
“But it’s given the context where we found ourselves. We need to remember the [UN] security council had been pressing the government to deal with the CNDP rebellion and also deal with the FDLR.”
Doss added: “Any operation is going to have, unfortunately, an impact on the civilian population. The issue is what are we trying to do here.
“Of course we don’t find any satisfaction whatsoever in people being killed and women being raped, but this part of the country will never be at peace unless we deal decisively with armed groups and yes, of course, instil discipline in the FARDC.”
Yet still Ntaganda, wanted for war crimes, is active in an army that is supported by a UN peacekeeping force. “We’ve made it clear that we will not have anything to do with him and we haven’t,” said Doss. “Ideally all the people who were involved in human rights violations will be handed over but remember where this country is — coming from. You can’t deal with everything immediately. We have to be realistic here. The integration process is still a work in progress.”
Some would characterise this as pragmatism in a country wracked by war for generations, while others regard it as a very dirty compromise.
Kabila, however, does not try to finesse the situation in his country. The Congolese president has admitted, bluntly: “Why do we choose to work with Mr Bosco, a person sought by the ICC? Because we want peace now. In Congo, peace must come before justice.” – guardian.co.uk