The little girl is staring at the foreigners with great interest – their serious expressions, bright bayonets clasped at their sides, synchronized steps as they march past their South Kivu headquarters.
‘Blow kisses to MONUSCO,’ the girl’s mother says with a shade of sarcasm as the Pakistani peacekeepers pass their taxi on the gravel road. The wide-eyed toddler continues to smile and stare out the car window, oblivious to the tension between the casques bleus (blue helmets) and the people they are there to protect.
On 27 June, the UN Security Council unanimously renewed the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), affirming that the world’s second-largest peacekeeping mission would be spending another year in the country.
But despite having a budget of almost $1.5 billion a year and almost 20,000 uniformed staff, the force that replaced MONUC in 2010 continues to attract international criticism for being toothless. In the Congo, the strained relationship between troops and civilians has culminated in violent confrontations where people on both sides have been injured or killed.
Before dawn on 13 May, rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) attacked a sleeping village in Kamananga, South Kivu. They indiscriminately killed adults and children in reprisal for an attack perpetuated by the Raïa Mutomboki, a local militia formed as a self-defence group. The UN base wasn’t far away and the next day outraged citizens attacked the peacekeepers with stones and the Raïa Mutomboki opened fire. Eleven peacekeepers were injured.
Here in Bukavu, people say that when the peacekeepers are witnessing a massacre they don’t pick up arms, they pick up the phone to call their headquarters.
‘The population of Bunyakiri was massacred in view of MONUSCO,’ says Adolphine Muley, who works with indigenous Pygmy communities and was on her way to Bunyakiri when she heard the news. She, like many others, argues that it makes little sense for peacekeepers to remain in the DR Congo to monitor violence if they don’t intervene to prevent it.
In 2004, when rebels occupied the city of Bukavu, South Kivu, the peacekeepers took no military action to stop the killings. According to news reports, they only fired their guns at civilians who were protesting against MONUSCO inaction, killing three people. Here in Bukavu, people say that when the peacekeepers are witnessing a massacre they don’t pick up arms, they pick up the phone to call their headquarters in Kinshasa.
While working on a documentary about peacekeeping operations, Jolly Kamuntu, Director of Radio Maendeleo in South Kivu, encountered many people who were angry with a mission they felt had lost credibility by failing to protect vulnerable people from violence. ‘It’s true,’ she says of the lack of protection, but is quick to point out that intervening in certain situations would require them to violate their mandate. ‘MONUSCO is not there to replace the Congolese State.’
Kamuntu believes that the peacekeepers have done positive things for the country, including securing the country’s first democratic election and protecting journalists like herself who faced death threats on a regular basis. ‘If people are accustomed to the electoral process, it is because of MONUSCO,’ she says.
But while the UN may have facilitated the transition to democracy, they also lost credibility by facilitating the November election where incumbent President Joseph Kabila garnered another term in office at the expense of heading a credible democracy.
Roger Kamanyula, a UN translator from South Kivu who works with a Pakistani military brigade, is at a critical intersection between the peacekeepers and Congolese citizens. He says that the mission has a good relationship with civilians but many people simply don’t understand their mandate.
‘Many think that MONUSCO is there to take the gun and try to run after armed groups whether they are internal or foreign armed groups,’ he says, clarifying that peacekeepers are in a support role to the Congolese army (FARDC) and police.
Killing in silence
In North Kivu, the M23 movement – a rebel group largely composed of army mutineers led by indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda – is gaining ground on the provincial capital of Goma. Since April, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence. As soldiers from the Congolese army desert their posts en masse, MONUSCO may begin to take a more aggressive stance against the M23.
The revised mandate condemns the mutiny and ‘all outside support to all armed groups’ but it stops short of mentioning UN and Human Rights Watch findings about the support from Rwanda. The first priority remains the protection of civilians, with the stipulation that security sector reform is at the forefront of the stabilization and peace consolidation mandate.
Mulay has a hard time believing that nobody heard the sound of 42 people being murdered while their village burned. ‘People don’t die in silence, they try to defend themselves’
After the massacre and attack, Kamanyula went to Bunyakiri with the UN troops to translate meetings between the peacekeepers and the local population. While he says that the presence of peacekeepers can deter violence he also suspects that rebel groups may seek out UN bases.
‘The perpetrators massacred near MONUSCO base,’ he says. ‘They want to create conflict between the locals and MONUSCO.’
He says that the peacekeepers would have intervened but because the killing happened more than a kilometre away from the UN base and the FDLR killed people with knives and machetes, instead of firearms, the peacekeepers didn’t know what was happening.
Adolphine Muley has a hard time believing that nobody heard the sound of, by her account, 42 people being murdered while their village burned. ‘People don’t die in silence, they try to defend themselves,’ she says.
Whether or not people in the Congo will see concrete changes to peacekeeping operations in the next year, Muley has no choice but to focus on the here and now. The community around Bunyakiri was struggling before the massacre and now some of the children who survived don’t have parents to raise them.
These concerns are compounded by the fact that real peace is still a distant hope.
‘You can say that the war in Congo is over,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘But nowhere in the east is calm.’