Playing with fire in Congo

The UN has lent its support to government efforts to drive out rebels. But ordinary people are suffering as a result

Furaha, a 40 year-old mother, was working in her field when she was seized by a group of armed men and raped. For the next six months she served as their sex slave and was forced to sleep with around six men a day.

“One day they beat me so hard that I thought I was dead; they left me there and I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The first thing I remember is the peacekeepers rescuing me.”

Furaha’s story shows why 10 years into its mission, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s UN peacekeeping force – better known by its French acronym Monuc – is as vital as ever. She literally owes them her life.

But the UN has taken a wrong turn and Monuc has let down the very people it was meant to help. This year a military strategy, planned by the Congolese government and backed by the UN, aimed to bring peace by aggressive action against a rebel group. But it has gone catastrophically awry.

Since January, 900,000 people have fled their homes and more than a thousand civilians have been killed. Homes have been burned to the ground and women and girls – some as young as four – have been brutally raped.

This violence is the direct result of the Congolese army’s offensive against theDemocratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group formed by some of those responsible for the Rwandan genocide, who have hidden in Congo since 1994. The highest echelons of the UN security council have given this offensive their backing and the peacekeepers supported it by providing the Congolese army with food rations, fuel and transport, and occasionally fire-power.

On the face of it, support for removing rebels might not seem so bad. But the suffering the offensive has unleashed is disproportionate to any results it has achieved. As of October, for every rebel combatant disarmed during this offensive, one civilian was killed, an estimated seven women were raped, six houses were torched, and 900 people were forced to flee their homes, according to a group of 84 Congolese and international NGOs.

The UN should have realised that this outcome was likely. The Congolese army is poorly paid, undisciplined and known human rights abusers serve in the officer class. As a result, many units have treated civilians as if they were the enemy. Sections of the army have burned, looted and raped wherever they have been posted.

The FDLR has also wreaked havoc and has deliberately responded to this year’s offensive with vicious reprisals against civilians. People in eastern Congo have told us that the operations have “woken a sleeping devil” and the FDLR are now more aggressive. Indeed a report by the UN’s own independent specialists on Congo, the Group of Experts, said that the offensive had failed on its own terms: the FDLR has not been dismantled and is still a threat to civilians.

The “highest priority” of the peacekeepers according to their mandate is protecting civilians. This military misadventure, however well intended it may be, goes completely against that.

After many months of downplaying the stark humanitarian consequences, Alan Doss, the head of UN peacekeeping in Congo, has said that the operation will end on 31 December, to make way for a new phase of joint UN-Congolese operations. The UN is attempting to put in place better safeguards for civilian protection this time around. The people of eastern Congo will be waiting to see if they can make that happen.

Yet there are other ways to weaken the FDLR that are less harmful to civilians. Depleting their ranks through offers of resettlement is one. Likewise, members of the FDLR in Europe and beyond have kept the militia going with funding and advice on military tactics, and need to be clamped down on. Legal action is being taken against The FDLR’s president in Germany but other members overseas are continuing their activities unhindered.

For the sake of Furaha and others like her, the UN security council must learn from the mistakes made this year and start charting a less destructive path to peace in Congo. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Comments in chronological order (Total 29 comments)

20 December 2009 11:40AM
In a country where rebels are rebels in the morning and the government in the afternoon it will take more than the UN to bring peace.
In Africa maybe a miracle.

20 December 2009 12:03PM
Here’s a novel idea, why not lay the blame fairly and squarely on the individuals who carry out these atrocities. Those monsters who wield the machetes to maim and mutilate their victims. The depaved individuals who rape four year old infants, those who kidnap women in order to gang rape them. The responsibility lies with those criminals, nowhere else. Stop the hand-wringing and cries of mea culpa, it must be the fault of the United Nations or the former colonial powers.
Each individual must be accountable for his or her actions, no-one else forces the to commit these atrocious crimes. I doubt that there is one individual reading this newspaper would be capable of carrying out such deeds and if such a crime where to be committed in this country the person responsible would be held to account.

20 December 2009 12:29PM
To attack/invade a country, in order to give women education and liberate them from an oppressive dress code, seems justifiable.
But in Congo, a conflict where raping women and girls is used as a weapon of war and a death toll that exceeds that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, we smugly turn a blind eye!
How has happened to our moral compass?

20 December 2009 12:45PM
The UN always has to work with the “official” government, That is why it gets itself into morally ambiguous situations like this.

20 December 2009 1:04PM
“Depleting their ranks through offers of resettlement is one”
This approach has been tried consistently by MONUC and others, and has unsurprisingly resulted in very few FDLR soldiers leaving their safe havens in North Kivu to return to Rwanda – after all, why risk possible prosecution and lengthy jail-terms, as well as giving-up free power, food, money, livestock, sex etc. off the backs of the unprotected Congolese villagers?
Also the article omits to point out other money-generating activities that the FDLR control in Eastern DRC (cassiterite / diamond / gold mines etc.) that help to swell their coffers and sustain the importations of military weapons, aside from the overseas members’ contributions.
Regrettably the situation has become arguably more complex since the start of the combined DRC-Rwandese army military interventions at the beginning of the year, and there are no clear-cut solutions to this problem that the Western powers seem to have forgotten about, more’s the tragedy.
20 December 2009 1:05PM
Lets not kid ourselves people, the UN is in there to keep the region sutiably stable for further extractive mining corporations and the like. The Congo has been one of the darkest most bruatl places on earth for almost 100 years.

20 December 2009 1:55PM
Too bad Bush got swept aside. He was doing great things for Africa.

20 December 2009 2:04PM
“But in Congo, a conflict where raping women and girls is used as a weapon of war and a death toll that exceeds that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, we smugly turn a blind eye!”
No we don’t. We just know that any action would cause people to take to the streets with signs demanding “No Blood for Coltan”. Millions of them.
How has happened to our moral compass?
Indeed. I often wonder.

20 December 2009 3:02PM
“any action would cause people to take to the streets with signs demanding “No Blood for Coltan”. Millions of them”.
Nevertheless, we can work around that with perjury and deception.

20 December 2009 3:41PM
Well, I really like the fact that the article is bringing much needed awareness to
the one of the conflicts in Africa.
Please do more of that.
I wonder why it takes events of nightmarish proportions to ellicit coverage.
These events highlight the shortcomings of the UN for combat ops.
There has to be more thinking applied to issues like the Congo if we want to see success in nation building.
Unfortunately, the burden will be primarily on African nations (AU)who have some modicum of stability to assume a leading role.
The local politics can be daunting, and I’m not sure if you’ll get anything close to a western ideal in goverance.
The question will really boil down to how willing any group of nations are to get involved and stay involved for a long period of time
20 December 2009 3:50PM
My reading of this article was not that the west should invade Congo to stop these horrific abuses happening, or that the FDLR should be given a free hand. Surely wasn?t it highlighting the hypocrisy and morally bankrupt idea of a UN force with a peacekeeping mandate backing a Congolese army (FARDC) which is raping and pillaging every bit as much as the FDLR.
African Adventurer, the FARDC is made up of many militias who up until a year ago were still active in committing exactly the same abuses of the FDLR. The biggest group the CNDP have been integrated into the army with no additional training and little accountability for past abuses. They have been given positions of responsibility and some of their officers are suspected of war crimes, but they are not handed over to The Hague because it?s not politically expedient to do so.
A recent Global Witness report and the group of experts report as well as the report of the Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial executions found evidence that certain units of the FARDC have taken control of a number of mines and are involved in illegal mineral smuggling. So in effect the UN has been supporting rape, murder and illegal smuggling. Shame on them and the Security Council members who give political support.
Attention has to be given to real security sector reform in the DRC, better demobilisation, better training and more judges, to ensure that impunity which allows these abuses to continue is challenged. Yes the responsibility should lie squarely with the individuals but with no rule of law this is difficult to enforce. And before we sit here in our western smugness thinking we would never do that, rape has long been seen as a spoil of war, after Germany surrendered in 1945, thousands of women were raped by the Russian army.
20 December 2009 4:04PM
Just a thought.
Ever wonder why African affairs rarely make in on the western medias
I thought at first it was just racism plain and simple.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure.
The west’s national interests dont seem to include very many things African.
North Africa gets attention because of proximity to the EU, besides that,
the central african states are seemingly on their own.
20 December 2009 4:05PM
The UN aren’t a lot of use. I’m not sure why anyone is surprised by this. The conflict will continue until one side wins. But the UN will specifically act to prevent this happening. Both sides will perform what we call ‘war crimes’ as a matter of course. While both sides are deadlocked, struggling for control, neither side seems worse than the other in this respect. But once one side gains the upper hand, then they will clearly be committing far more war crimes, while the other, defeated side finds itself re-cast as a victim. The UN will be obliged to protect the victim and withdraw support for the perpetrators of these war crimes. Then, balance will be restored and the whole sorry business can start again.
The sooner the UN simply withdraws completely, the better.
20 December 2009 4:58PM
fififixit, I agree with your analysis of Congo.
As an aside, I agree too, that Russian forces committed horrendous atrocities as they moved in to occupy parts of defeated Germany. One further comment with regard to that statement. It has become politically correct to accuse Russia as the “bad ally” of rape following the fall of Germany in 1945. I have been an observer of Germany for two decades, and was amazed to learn that prior to the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans still feared complaining about allied atrocities for fear that they would be viewed as not-sufficiently-contrite. As a result, many allied atrocities remain unreported. How often is it recognised in the UK, how much worse the fire bombing of Dresden was, than the bombing of London? No, I do not rehash the act itself, but I seriously abhor western ignorance of and idealisation of our forces which resulted because Germany felt it was not in a position to complain.
I am familiar with a town where the occupying forces were French, and where all women of any age were raped. This is not yet politically correct to discuss. Were British, Canadian, and American forces exceptions? I don’t think so. I have a Canadian uncle, who upon returning home to his family, reported that they were told as the occupation moved in, that it was ok to take what they wanted. Did it stop at that? I can not tell you. Would it be politically correct if I did?
20 December 2009 6:37PM
It’s kinda disheartening that Africa just doesnt really interest many people in the west.
Looking at the amount of posts here vs. other threads, it doesnt look good.
Nobody is really picking up on the fact that we need the “5 asian economic tigers phenomenon” to happen in Africa.
There are many good reasons why the central African countries need economic prosperity. I’m just not very hopeful they’ll get the opportunity without some concerted effort on our part.
21 December 2009 12:24AM
At some point people are going to pay attention.
If nothing else because of the sheer amount of corpses.
21 December 2009 1:18AM
four, or five, or six million deaths in eight, or nine, or ten years. unimaginable suffering.
remember that after the event and despite the illegality iraq and afghanistan occupations have been signed off.
for eff’s sake don’t be daft – remember guantanamo, bagram &c, and as the old nixon-kissinger phrase goes, ‘follow the money’. cassiterite has a highest price in the london stock exchange.
if you don’t want to read ft reports, listen to a bit of keith harmon snow on the net. but do read the above newsclip from channel four. probably better to go direct to their site and search ‘congo cassiterite’. it doesn’t come from anywhere else yet…
21 December 2009 1:21AM
on the newsclip point i should’ve said ‘watch’.
21 December 2009 2:14AM
Central Africa needs more than just western outrage because Uganda passed some homophobic laws. Cental Africa is much bigger than just Uganda.
The atrocities in the Congo, Rwanda, Cote d’ivore, etc..even Sudan are the stuff of nightmares.
The western left has more than enough blustering indignation on any given subject, like Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Copenhagen. Where is this outrage in the face of the mass slaughter and torture of average Africans?
21 December 2009 2:27AM
What will come back to haunt the western sphere of influence is that at some point the cental African nations or coastal African nations will find an equilibrium. This will not be a western friendly influence.
Somalia is lawless to be sure, BUT the groups most dedicated to stability and most capable of providing it are not pro-west. In fact, many are fundamentalist muslim in nature.
The west doesnt have to do a thing now.
Just sit back and see what will emerge out of all this
21 December 2009 2:30AM
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21 December 2009 2:35AM
The west doesnt have to do a thing now.
Just sit back
as it has been doing during successive empires, then. as it has done during the structural adjustment programme period. as it is doing from the uk with the cdc, formerly commonwealth development corporation.
genned up, madjack, or only prepared to eke out your piratical glee via your screen name?
21 December 2009 4:01AM
genned up, madjack, or only prepared to eke out your piratical glee via your screen name?
I’m thinking in this case “genned up”.
Its great that there are NGOs, the UN, CDC and other folks providing relief.
Its not working.
Other parts of Africa who have established ties with the west are doing better.
Central Africa and alot of coastal African nations are in tatters.
The UN has screwed up and mismanaged what should be an example of what it can do.
I dont mean to single out the UN, because there is ALOT of missed opportunity from many sides.
I feeling a rant coming on so I’ll stop with the example of Rwanda.
We in the west should have learned something from this and didnt really give a crap.
21 December 2009 4:13AM
Ok I lied about stopping…..
It should offend western sensibilities that people on the continent are mangled, killed and sold into slavery but we could care less.
Apartheid, Darfur and now nothing…..its sad.
21 December 2009 5:54AM
Yep, keep up the coverage on this area. We want to know what is going on.
We can at least, ask to know what is going on there – not remain ignorant.
& who knows, if some opportunity comes along – we’ll be able to recognise it and take it.
21 December 2009 6:31AM
I think one reason why the Congo gets less attention that Israel is that the problems are incredibly complex and there are no goodies or baddies to side with. Nobody comes out of this well.
I am pleased to see nobody (so far) has blamed the UN for the chaos. The UN has neither the resources nor the authority to impose a solution on a war-torn nation- that was never its purpose and it does not have its own army. Long ago the UN decided to mainly use local, regional and second-rate armies when peacekeeping for political reasons and the results are inevitable; they often do no help at all (but lets not forget the UN does do good work with aid, education, healthcare etc).
Whilst I do not deny for a minute the responsibility for Belgium which abandoned Congo totally unprepared for independance back in 1960, the Congolese have had 50 years to sort themselves out, but they have never found an effective stable leader (let alone a democratic one).
They must take some responsibility for themselves. “They” does not of course include the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
21 December 2009 7:43AM
Keo2008, when the Congolese did choose a leader, whom they felt would represent their interests in Patrice Lumumba, the west backed Mobutu and had him executed. Thus ushering in years of a dictator who raped the countries resources for his own personal wealth and the “everyone for himself” policy that we still see in action in the DRC today. Who knows if Lumumba would have been the great liberator, I suppose the track record of many of leaders of his time wasn’t great, but he may have been the Congolese Mandela, but we will never know.
An army which doesn’t get paid takes what it wants/needs from the local populace, in exactly the same way that the many militias do. The few judges….who don’t get paid, extort money for preferential sentences, gaolers who don’t get paid…free prisoners who can pay. Everyone is in it for himself. This could also extend to the endemic levels of sexual violence.
The Congolese people need our support, need positive international community engagement to help to build their infrastructure, but not uncritical support. It is not acceptable for the UN or Western governments to turn a blind eye to abuses because of geo-politics. There is a lot to be said for the influence of the regional actors in the conflict in the DRC….
21 December 2009 1:13PM
@Mildubmeo ”Here’s a novel idea,why not lay the blame fairly and squarely on individuals who committed these attrocities.” ”Stop the handwringing cries of Mea Culpa.”
There is no debate about the Congo and it’s FIVE MILLION dead because no one cares about the Congo.27 comments on CIF threads speaks volumes.As Johan Hari reported last year: The deadliest war since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe and YOU are certainly carrying a blood soaked chunk of slaughter in your back pocket.When you look at the Congo and the cliches of Africa reporting tumble out, ‘Tribal Conflict’, ‘Heart of Darkness’,It isnt.United Nations investigations found it was a war of ‘Armies of Business’, seizing metals that make our 21st Century zing and bling.The war is about you. The UN names the international cooperation involved, Anglo American,Standard Chartered Bank,Deer Veers, and one hundred others, But our governments told them to stop criticizing the coorperations. Meanwhile a pathetic UN force of 17,000,fails to protects civillians from slaughter’.

21 December 2009 3:26PM
If people dont care, they cant be made to care.
We care more about African wild life populations.
The slaughter will continue unabated.

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