Pushed from the headlines by multiple crises in the Middle East, genocidal warfare continues in Congo even on the even of elections. This July 28 New York Times op-ed piece by Aidan Hartley, a television journalist who witnessed a massacre of a village by UN “peacekeepers” earlier this year, is a rare exception to a general media blackout.
Congo’s Election, the U.N.’s Massacre
The Democratic Republic of the Congo will hold its first legitimate elections in four decades on Sunday. The United Nations peacekeeping mission there has played the role of electoral midwife, so if the vote is free and fair it will be among the global body’s greatest successes on the continent.
But in eastern Congo, many people will be unable to vote because the fighting that has killed millions in the past decade continues unabated, despite peace overtures by rebels in recent days. And in this, the United Nations is largely at fault. Not only has it failed to stop the killing, its troops have even been party to some of the violence against civilians whom they were to deployed to protect.
Consider a massacre that occurred on April 21 at a hamlet called Kazana in the Ituri district. I know something about what happened at Kazana because I was there.
The United Nations force, which was created in 1999 and is known by its initials in French as Monuc, decided this spring to conduct combined operations with the Congolese Army to dislodge recalcitrant militias in eastern areas before the election. My director, James Brabazon, and I accompanied them on assignment for Britain’s Channel 4, and we caught the events at Kazana on film.
Before the attack, the United Nations’ Pakistani and South African peacekeepers had been assured by the Congolese authorities that the town held only rebels and perhaps a few brainwashed camp followers. The international troops claim that they issued advance notice through radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped by planes. But Kazana’s survivors, whom we later interviewed, denied receiving any warnings.
As mortars fired by the United Nations troops began to fall on the village that morning, we could see families fleeing. A United Nations helicopter gunship circled overhead, but the pilot radioed down to peacekeeping ground troops that he would not fire because the only people he could see in Kazana appeared unarmed.
Nonetheless, the mortar barrage continued for seven hours. Blue-helmeted troops also pumped heavy machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades into the hamlet. When Congolese and United Nations troops advanced into the village, we followed. The platoon we were with was ambushed by militia fighters; the peacekeepers called in a mortar strike, and we saw our attackers flee or die.
But advancing among the well-tended gardens and thatched huts, we mostly observed signs of civilian life brutally interrupted, with pools of blood alongside half-cooked meals. And after the fighting stopped, as the peacekeepers stood idly by, Congolese troops set every house on fire. When I complained to the Congolese commander, he said, “I can’t control my soldiers.”
Nobody will ever know the true death toll. Survivors from the village later told me that at least 30 civilians were killed. One Monuc officer estimated that 25 people died — mainly by his own forces’ mortars. The Congolese Army put the tally at 34, insisting that all were “combatants.”
In the days after Kazana, we met thousands of elderly people, women and children from the surrounding area who were fleeing violence. Most were sleeping rough in the bush or in village churches. They were hungry and sick, and I was particularly struck by how most of them were shoeless, with feet bleeding from their grueling flight. Refugees told of rape and torture at the hands of Congolese troops. Monuc, which is supposed to oversee humanitarian relief for war victims, was nowhere to be found.
What happened in Kazana violates Monuc’s mandate, and this in a region where memories remain fresh of the United Nations’ utter failure to protect civilians during the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. But the United Nations officers in the field that day were carrying out clear orders: to support the Congolese troops in counterinsurgency efforts.
Unfortunately, Congo’s army is the worst abuser of human rights in the country today. The United Nations excuses its cooperation with this ragtag force of co-opted former militiamen by saying it wants to change their behavior by working with them rather than withholding aid.
This plan may look good on paper at United Nations headquarters, but it has often not worked on the ground. With 16,000 troops, this is the biggest United Nations force in the world, but it is spread very thinly in a nation half the size of Europe. Its troops have been involved in the child-prostitution scandals that have rocked the United Nations. And it is still struggling with the hangover of the disastrous American-led mission to Somalia in 1993, after which Western nations handed the task of most peacekeeping in Africa to Africans and other developing nations
As a result Monuc is an ill-equipped third-world army, with Vietnam-era American armor and Soviet aircraft. The United Nations seems not to see the paradox in having contingents from a military dictatorship (Pakistan) and conservative monarchies (Nepal and Morocco) charged with helping Congo become democratic.
The week after the massacre at Kazana we interviewed United Nations military and civilian officials in Ituri and told them what we had seen. They promised to investigate our reports on the ground and to “ask a lot of questions.” One official, however, told us that the violence being perpetrated against civilians across the region was a “temporary phenomenon” that would cease when security was restored. I wondered what outrage would have greeted this comment had it come from an American official, and had this been an American-led military operation.
After I wrote an account of the massacre at Kazana for The Observer of London last month, the United Nations announced it would look into the events. But if any investigation took place, it was a well-kept secret. Certainly United Nations investigators never asked to see the many hours of footage we took.
Sunday is supposed to be the dawn of a new era in Congo. But not for the people of Kazana. Houses have been razed, crops spoiled, a school that was to be a voting station was commandeered as a military headquarters, and many survivors lost their voter identification cards during the attack. What is happening in eastern Congo is not “temporary” violence; it is a continuing civilian catastrophe, and the United Nations deserves a share of the blame.
See our last post on Congo.