- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009

KASASA, Congo | On a winter night shortly after dark, a group of armed men burst out of the jungle and attacked a small camp here for displaced families.

By dawn, the rebels had massacred scores of civilians, pillaged crops and other valuables and left tents and huts ablaze.

But U.N. peacekeepers in a base camp less than a mile away did not hear the guns, grenades or screams, nor were they alerted by villagers who had the base’s cell phone numbers, the local U.N. commander said.

The most expensive peacekeeping operation in U.N. history, with an annual budget of $1.24 billion, the Democratic Republic of the Congo mission known by its French acronym as MONUC has an authorized strength of 20,575 soldiers and military observers, and hundreds of civilians. Despite its size and resources, the 9-year-old mission has failed to pacify this tumultuous region.

“We have a large mandate, the country is huge, and there is obviously no peace to keep,” U.N. Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Alain Le Roy told The Washington Times.

Col. Nambir Singh Vashishta, commander of the Indian battalion at the time of the raid in Kasasa, said Congolese expectations are too high.

“There are only so many soldiers here, for an area the size of Western Europe,” he said. “We have one soldier for every thousand people.”

The active combatants in eastern Congo — a patchwork of Rwandan- and Ugandan-financed militias and the unstable Congolese national army — have pushed MONUC into a more aggressive stance, closer to peace enforcement than peacekeeping.

It is not easy work: More than 140 MONUC personnel have been killed in the line of duty since 1999.

Conduct among the force has hardly been exemplary. Human rights groups say the peacekeepers have been involved in sexual and other exploitation of civilians among the 10 million who reside in the war-ravaged eastern region known as the Kivus.

“The Congolese government’s military operations have been a disaster for civilians, who are now being attacked from all sides,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Congo and the U.N. need to take urgent measures to protect people and keep this human rights catastrophe from getting even worse.”

Alan Doss, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for Congo, told reporters in Kinshasa in late July that “a very small number of peacekeepers have abused the trust of the Congolese people in the past, and the overwhelming majority who serve with honor in this mission resent the damage that a few individuals can do to the credibility of peacekeeping.”

He added, “What we are talking about here is zero tolerance for any behavior that disrespects women and girls and the communities in which they live.”

MONUC has repatriated more than 70 peacekeepers for sexual abuse and exploitation, but U.N. officials acknowledge that they rarely find out whether a straying blue helmet has been punished by his own government.

The problems are compounded by the displacement of more than 1 million civilians from their native villages. U.N. officials estimate that 1.7 million Kivu civilians have been displaced this year alone. Oxfam International estimates that half that number have fled their homes since March. Many displaced families live for years in ad hoc camps of tiny huts of thatch, mud and tarp that are particularly vulnerable to attack.

The official toll in the Kasasa raid was 100, but survivors said the death toll was at least three times that. Villagers blamed the FDLR, a militia of Congolese Hutus and Rwandan refugees known for its merciless attacks on civilians.

“It was awful,” said one Kasasa resident, pointing to a soft patch of earth containing a neighbor’s remains. “MONUC did nothing. They had to know, but they did nothing. How can that be?”

Congolese from Ituri to Uvira — territory that encompasses most of the Kivus region — have asked the same questions.

Gen. Babacar Gaye, the U.N. force commander in the country, told The Times that the peacekeepers must adapt their strategy to defend civilians better against rebel groups.

“We are scattered because we want to be where civilians are, and are at risk,” Gen. Gaye said. “The international community has taken that as a lesson from MONUC.”

In the Great Lakes region, he said, that means building dozens of bare-bones mobile operating bases near settlements in the lush jungles. The bases patrol their areas and function as a rapid response team to protect civilians and call to other bases for backup.

Peacekeeping officials at U.N. headquarters and on the ground here say they also need more blue helmets and many more helicopters to patrol the sprawling and often isolated population.

Bangladesh in mid-August sent 200 infantry soldiers to MONUC, which will deploy them in the Kivus. Egypt, India and Jordan also have volunteered to send troops, special forces and soldiers with technical specialties.

Several MONUC officers lamented that the local population is still harboring militias or allowing rebels to pass through their villages unreported. This is the kind of intelligence that would, if passed along quickly, help MONUC apprehend the armed men who prey on farmers and families in Congo’s deep brush.

Col. Ranbir, who led about 1,000 Indian peacekeepers in and around Kiwanja, says his troops do get some intelligence from nearby farmers, but little of it is actionable.

Many Kivuans say the United Nations is in league with the militias, possibly trading food and information or even weapons, with the very groups they are supposed to be capturing.

Besides protecting civilians and humanitarian workers, MONUC is tasked with training the undisciplined Congolese national army, known by its French acronym FARDC. Adding to the pressure, the FARDC has absorbed thousands of former rebels, few of whom are model soldiers.

“It is our task to help, to control, to make it work,” Mr. Le Roy said. “Our key issue is to ensure the [Congolese army] is strong enough.”

But, he added, there is little the United Nations can do if President Joseph Kabila’s weak central government cannot pay, equip, feed or discipline its soldiers.

For now, the FARDC more often runs away from battle, relying on MONUC to fight off armed incursions.

Congolese troops are known to drink on the job, erect illegal roadblocks to wring bribes from passing civilians, and maintain a lax attitude toward training and discipline. FARDC soldiers have raped, looted and burned towns while retreating from conflict.

Surveys by human rights groups say the Congolese army is responsible for more than half of the rapes committed in the east this year.

Even worse, say human rights observers, the FARDC is reportedly working with a former militia leader, Gen. Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers, among other charges.

The Congolese government says Gen. Ntaganda is acting as a military consultant, mostly to oversee the integration of 600 CNDP guerrillas into the FARDC.

U.N. officials based in the DRC acknowledge Gen. Ntaganda is involved with the FARDC, but adopt what appears to be a “don’t see, don’t tell” attitude toward the indicted general.

“Bosco, as far as I know, is not out of circulation,” said former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is now U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region. “But I have no contact with him, and I prefer not to have contact with him.”

Most of the rebel militias are fighting decades-old ethnic or financial proxy wars with backing from neighboring Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda. The crisscrossing of rebel groups and the weakness of the Congolese armed forces have made the country a basket case for international assistance.

Few here are optimistic about the demobilization and integration process that joins rebel soldiers with the Congolese army.

“We are cautious,” said Leila Zerrougui, the deputy head of MONUC. “I cannot say it will work. It may just collapse at any time.”

Gen. Gaye, MONUC’s commanding officer, acknowledges the difficulty of trying to whip undisciplined soldiers into shape while they are at war with guerrillas.

“This is Congo,” he said. “It is not the first time adversaries have joined to try to work together.”