UN ‘War Tourists’ Draw Attention In Congo – OZY

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troubled mission

It has been 23 years since the blue helmets arrived in the country. For the Congolese, their arrival marked the end of hostilities and a new dawn for peace, stability and prosperity. Such hope is a distant memory.

On July 31 this year, a convoy of UN troops opened fire on civilians in Kasindi town on the Ugandan border, killing two people and injuring 15. The incident sparked further outrage, protests and the ransacking of UN offices.

UN forces in Congo, known as MONUSCO, first deployed in 1999 and have been instrumental in maintaining a temporary ceasefire between the warring parties. Originally started as a war to end more than 30 years of Mobuto Sese Seko’s rule in 1996, the conflict persisted when rebel leader-President Laurent-Desire Kabila’s foreign allies turned against him after he demanded their withdrawal. This was the start of a regional war: one part consisted of Kabila’s Congolese army and new foreign allies, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe; the other side was made up of Congolese rebels backed by Kabila’s former allies Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. Congo’s strategic location in the heart of Africa, bordering nine nations, along with struggling leadership and immense natural resources – including deposits of raw minerals estimated to be worth $24 trillion – all fueling the ongoing violence.

The presence of 17,783 blue helmets succeeded in containing the violence or driving out the foreign-backed rebels. Kidnappings, murders, rapes and other atrocities are commonplace, particularly in eastern Congo, where approximately 120 armed groups were still active at the last count, in 2020.



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Peace for whom?

Between June 2017 and June 2019, the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project of Human Rights Watch and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, reported the murder of 1,900 civilians and the kidnapping of more than 3,300 in the provinces of North and South Kivu. This means that the armed groups killed an average of 79 people and abducted 138 others each month during this period, at the gates of the peacekeepers whose presence is concentrated in these provinces.

“We are slaughtered like animals every day. We cannot work on our farms, we are afraid to send our children to school for fear that the rebels will kill us or kidnap us. The UN soldiers have failed,” Henri Kambale, a street vendor from the town of Beni in North Kivu, told OZY by phone.

Stewart Muhindo, a Congolese researcher and activist affiliated with LUCHA, a non-violent, non-partisan civil society movement based in Congo, says the UN peacekeeping mission has been unable to fulfill its mandate . Yet he rejects the idea that the mission was a total failure. He believes that this has contributed significantly to the reunification and democratization of the country.

A significant victory for UN forces came in 2013, when the Force Intervention Brigade, an offensively oriented military branch of the peacekeeping mission, helped defeat and drive out the rebel group M23 from its stronghold in North Kivu.

But the M23 previously disappeared reappeared this year and seized the strategic North Kivu town of Bunagana, a hub of cross-border trade between Congo and its eastern neighbors – and MONUSCO forces failed to intervene. The Congolese national army, known as the FARDC, fought the rebels without success. Meanwhile, a leaked UN report indicated that Rwanda provided support to the M23, although Rwanda denied this.

Angry Congolese civilians took to the streets to demand the immediate departure of MONUSCO. Goma, the capital of North Kivu, became the center of civil protests on July 25, and unrest quickly spread to other towns. Protesters vandalized, looted and set fire to UN buildings. Thirty-six people, including four UN peacekeepers, died in the violence. It was the deadliest anti-MONUSCO protest to date.

Then, a convoy of UN soldiers, who had returned on July 31 after a period of leave, attempted to return to Congo through the town of Kasindi on the Ugandan border. The soldiers were not allowed to enter immediately. They then fired their weapons and opened fire. The motive of the soldiers is unknown; protesters believe they were angry at being denied entry by border officials. Immediately after the shooting, MONUSCO issued a statement calling the violence “unspeakable and irresponsible”. According to the same press release, the perpetrators have been arrested and will face legal proceedings in their country of origin. MONUSCO did not respond to OZY’s request for additional comment.

Anelka Mwanya Kakule is a leader of anti-MONUSCO protests in the town of Butembo, North Kivu.

“The forced entry of a foreign army into the borders of a sovereign country is an act of absolute sabotage. And as if that were not enough, the so-called peacekeepers continued to shoot and kill peaceful civilians in their country,” Kakule said.


Tipping point?

Pressure is now mounting for MONUSCO forces to withdraw. Mission spokesman Mathias Gillmann was excluded of the country by the Congolese government. Bintou Keita, head of MONUSCO, has publicly recognized that the M23 rebel group “behaves more and more like a conventional army”. She lamented the rebels’ increasingly sophisticated weapons and equipment, but failed to acknowledge MONUSCO’s inability to control the violence.

If UN soldiers cannot contain the rebels, one wonders if the blue helmets, as they are called, are little more than war tourists on the Congo battlefield. Like civilians, peacekeepers often appear helpless as rebel groups abduct, kill and drive people from their homes. At the same time, MONUSCO won notoriety as the most expensive UN peacekeeping mission, with an annual budget over $1 billion.

Nobel laureate Dr Denis Mukwege, known for his work assisting victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo, says the Congolese government needs to reform its security sector. The country he has said in a public statement, “cannot count forever on the assistance of the United Nations, nor pursue a policy of outsourcing our national security to third States”.

“A hasty departure of MONUSCO without a well-trained and equipped professional Congolese army will likely aggravate the security crisis in Congo,” said a conflict prevention and resolution expert with many years of experience in the region, who asked remain anonymous. He predicted that the departure of MONUSCO would encourage the emergence of even more armed groups.

There is a grim resemblance between events in the Congo and those in Mali, a West African country, where violent conflict has led thousands of UN peacekeepers to join French soldiers in a mission to protect civilians and peacemaking, particularly in the north of the country. Despite a large presence of foreign security forces, jihadist rebels and terrorists remain active in the country, seizing ground and killing civilians. The ineffectiveness of the foreign soldiers’ mission led the Malian people to demonstrate in the streets and to call for their exodus. Last month, French soldiers withdrew from Mali. Meanwhile, tensions between the UN mission and the Malian government continue.

Acknowledging the failures of foreign peacekeepers is not in itself a solution for the Congo. Yet there seems to be an emerging consensus about who should determine the country’s path forward. According to Stewart Muhindo of the civil society organization LUCHA, “It is imperative that the daughters and sons of Congo secure and protect their country, because these duties and responsibilities cannot be entrusted to foreign armies”.

Community corner

Is a complete withdrawal of UN peacekeepers appropriate – or will it encourage armed rebel groups?


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