U.N. peacekeepers in Congo without peace

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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.

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