Al Jazeera, 18 January 2016
Kalongo, Democratic Republic of Congo – Androzo Bekere clearly remembers the attack on his village in Kalongo.
Standing beside a graveyard where wooden crosses bear the names of those killed, he gestures towards a cluster of houses, abandoned by their inhabitants.
“It was about four in the afternoon when we were told that armed men had captured a girl from here, in the field where she was farming,” he said. “We called the army. They came with us to the field and we thought the rebels had escaped, but later that evening, they encircled the village and started attacking people with machetes.”
Six people were killed in that attack in May 2015, including the village chief and his wife. It was reportedly carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces, an armed group with ties to Uganda. It has been held responsible for most of the attacks in Beni territory, in which Kalongo is located, over the past year.
According to Bekere, the peacekeepers at the nearby UN base, just 3km away in Mavivi, did not come to their aid. “Usually, they come after attacks have taken place,” he said. “We have meetings with them and they use interpreters to talk to us, but we don’t see any results.”
A statement from the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), says that their Joint Intelligence Operations Centre only received information about the attack at 10:30pm that night, several hours after it had begun.
World’s largest peacekeeping operation
The perception that UN peacekeepers are not doing much, or that they are in Congo as “tourists in helicopters” is a common and not very new refrain among civilians in the North Kivu region.
It is one of the milder criticisms levelled at the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, which has been in the DRC for 15 years and has around 20,000 uniformed personnel in the country.
Protesters have taken to the streets after massacres to demonstrate their frustration with MONUSCO. In a damning 2014 report, Human Rights Watch accused the peacekeepers of failing to respond to repeated calls for help during an attack in which 30 people were killed. The peacekeepers were only 9km away, but arrived two days later.
A few hundred metres away from Kalongo is the N4, the main road north of Beni city.
Nepalese peacekeepers stand watch at intervals along the road, their weapons poised over armoured vehicles. To the north, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) were recently involved in operations against suspected ADF fighters alongside the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), the UN’s relatively new offensive combat force.
Created by the UN Security Council in March 2013, months after the rebel group M23 captured the city of Goma in the presence of peacekeepers and to the embarrassment of the UN, the FIB was the first UN combat force authorised to carry out targeted offensive operations against armed groups.
Working under the authority of the MONUSCO Force Commander, the FIB consists of “three infantry battalions, one artillery, and one special force and reconnaissance company with headquarters in Goma”, and has about 3,000 troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi.
Before the creation of the FIB, the mandate of MONUSCO involved protecting civilians and supporting the Congolese government in consolidating its authority, while its predecessor, MONUC, was created to observe a 1999 ceasefire between the DRC and other states in the region.
Although the FIB has been operational in the North Kivu region since mid-2013, attacks against civilians by armed groups have been frequent; according to a report by the UN Group of Experts, between 350 and 450 people were killed in the Beni area from October 2014 to June 2015.
“The population is very hostile to MONUSCO. Firstly because so many people are being killed, but even more so seeing all their arsenal, logistics and soldiers in the area. The population feels there is no will from MONUSCO to help them,” Teddy Muhindo Kataliko, the president of the Civil Society in Beni Territory told Al Jazeera.”They have everything necessary to defeat [ADF]. MONUSCO estimates that there are 200-and-something men in the zone. And still a national and international army together cannot get rid of them? It’s ridiculous.”
Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu, believes that the more than $1bn poured into the peacekeeping operation annually should be used for development funds instead.
“For President Kabila, we cannot be under the protection of the peacekeepers for such a long time, when it’s us who invited them here,” he said. “Rather than spending this money on a mission of surveillance, observation and helicopters circulating everywhere, it’s better if the UN creates a type of Marshall Plan for the DRC’s development.”
Collaboration with the FARDC
According to officials in MONUSCO, the limitations of the peacekeeping operation are political.
While the FIB has a mandate to conduct offensive operations, “either unilaterally or jointly with the Congolese armed forces”, its relationship with the Congolese government has been uneasy, following the latter’s decision to appoint two generals in the Congolese army, whom MONUSCO has criticised as having a poor human rights record, to lead an operation against another armed group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, (FDLR).
Since then, ‘Sukola I’, the FARDC’s operation against the Aillied Democratic Forces (ADF), which began in January 2014, has received limited support from the FIB and MONUSCO.
Although the FIB has a mandate to act unilaterally, it is not an “efficient” approach, said Jean Baillaud, the deputy force commander of MONUSCO.
“We are not from the country, so our challenge is to know who is who. For us it’s much more efficient to be able to work with the Congolese, to support them, to complement them,” he said. “Our current priority is a political expectation to have the conditions for joint operations to resume which has to be given at the top level.”
In October, the FIB conducted a unilateral operation in the region of Pinga, where they said they targeted a rebel group. Controversy quickly erupted over allegations that five civilians had been killed, a charge that MONUSCO denies, but which Governor Paluku and a local civil society organisation have maintained.
Collateral victims of UN peacekeeping
“People don’t know that the UN here is very political,” said one humanitarian worker in Goma who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “The FIB’s operation in Pinga was clearly a political mistake because they did it alone and opened up a huge door to be criticised.”
He argued that the presence of the FIB has created confusion towards the UN as a whole.
“Do civilians see the difference between UN organisations and an armed unit like FIB? I’ve always been a defender of the UN, but when you have an aggressive mandate, it’s not a good idea.”
In 2014, a group of NGOs opposed the use of drones for humanitarian information gathering on the ground that their usage would “[blur] the lines between military and humanitarian actors in the conflict”.
Baillaud said that each situation requires a different response; in some cases, he said, the FIB had refrained from acting forcefully in order to avoid “killing a lot of dependents”, while in other cases where military force was used, civil society groups had reacted positively.
Another official in MONUSCO, who also asked to remain unnamed, said that civilian deaths are unavoidable in military operations.
“You cannot organise a military operation and somehow assume that there will be no collateral damage,” he said. “The population on the one hand tells you MONUSCO is not acting and not doing enough. When it acts and someone dies, they come back and say, ‘You killed us.’ It’s a very difficult situation.”
He said that contrary to the positive emphasis on the capacities of the peacekeeping mission, the FIB did not seem to have the right resources to deal with attacks in North Kivu.
“This is not conventional warfare. We are facing a situation where ADF rebels are operating in small groups. They strike and disappear into the forest, which is very thick. I don’t know if FIB has the capabilities of tracking them, of gaining intelligence and really reaching them,” he said. He added that MONUSCO’s controversial use of drones was not helpful given the terrain.
According to Baillaud, the solution to defeating armed groups in the east requires more than just a military approach.
“It’s political. It’s also about socioeconomic considerations, maybe also ethnic problems, corruption. It’s a mix of different things,” he said.
Intelligence challenges and political interests
Political solutions require a solid understanding of the region, something which analysts say MONUSCO lacks.
One analyst, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his research activities, criticised MONUSCO’s intelligence work and analysis. He said MONUSCO’s insistence that the ADF was responsible for the attacks in Beni territory was heavily influenced by sources who were either not properly vetted or whose information was not credible.
A report by the UN Group of Experts into armed attacks in the DRC supports this perspective on the circumstances of the attacks, saying that “in some cases” the ADF was responsible for the killing of civilians in the Beni area, but that in three out of 13 incidents, the Group had “insufficient evidence to conclusively attribute the killings to ADF”.
Identifying who comprises ADF presents an additional challenge. Two witnesses, an ADF ex-combatant and a victim kidnapped by ADF, told the group that some of the men wore “military uniforms”.
There are also allegations that the Congolese army is implicated in the conflict.
The UN Group of Experts report states that “FARDC officers deployed for the Sukola I military operations against ADF were involved in the exploitation and sale of timber in Beni territory” and that an FARDC lieutenant-colonel of the Sukola I operations sold two lorryloads of planks a month “including during periods when the exploitation area was under ADF control”.
The group further noted that “the ability of FARDC to respond to threats to civilians may have been limited by its involvement in timber exploitation”.
Dan Fahey, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley who researches armed conflict in the Great Lakes Region, also said that the “ADF was cooperating with some FARDC officers and soldiers in the period prior to 2014, including in the timber trade”.
The MONUSCO official, during the interview with Al Jazeera, confirmed that a senior FARDC military officer admitted to passing information, logistical support and uniforms to the ADF and that the army and the ADF “started working together and having businesses together, in timber and minerals”.
It is not politically appropriate for MONUSCO to admit to this, said the official. “We are a mission, we’re supposed to be neutral,” he said. “Imagine if FIB go in, find people with uniforms like FARDC and fire at them, they might end up killing the FARDC. That would be disastrous.”
The matter is further complicated by regional actors and interests. A 2013 briefing by the International Peace Institute cited that Rwanda and Uganda, “have provided overt and tacit support for rebel groups, and the region is overshadowed by spectres of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, including reprisals, counter-reprisals, and deep ethic divisions”.
The source of the problem was that the central government does not in fact want the conflict in the east to end, as the region has always been the base of a “strong opposition” to Kinshasa, said the MONUSCO official. “Rwanda and Uganda also have their own interests,” he added.
Despite the widespread discontent towards the peacekeepers, those working in the UN and the humanitarian community believe that North Kivu as a whole would be worse off without their presence.
Jacob Mogeni, the head of MONUSCO’s Beni office, said that the UN has been instrumental in the governance of the country. This includes the systematic monitoring of human rights violations, supporting the justice system, reuniting children recruited by armed groups with their families, and providing the army and police with food and fuel.
“If the operation wasn’t here today, I don’t think Beni people or even the NGOs could stay here,” he said.
But many Congolese do not share the same perspective, arguing that armed attacks are still occurring regularly and the peacekeepers’ presence makes no substantial difference to their security.
On November 30, 25 people, including seven civilians, were killed in an attack by suspected ADF fighters in Eringeti, 55km north of Beni. More recently, on December 26, three civilians were killed in another attack attributed to the ADF, and on January 7, 14 civilians were killed in an attack attributed to the FDLR, close to MONUSCO and FARDC positions.
For some, the solution is greater cooperation between the Congolese army and peacekeepers; for others, a final end to the peacekeeping operation.
In a letter to the National Assembly focusing on peace and security in the DRC, a group of Congolese women stated that MONUSCO does not seem like the best idea for bringing peace to the country.
Last year President Kabila sought a cut of 6,000 troops and a commitment to an exit strategy to the peacekeeping operation and last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended that 1,700 troops be removed from the peacekeeping mission, with further cuts to be decided in the future depending on progress made against armed groups.
Luc Nkulula, a grassroots activist with the movement Lucha, believes that the solution for the DRC lies in its people.
“The international community will never change anything in this country, whatever their level of intervention,” he said. “The solution for the DRC is Congolese.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation