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Stronger UN Role is Needed in the Congo

DR Congo, January 28, 2009

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The seemingly endless turmoil in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo took another turn last week. Thousands of Rwandan troops entered the country, apparently by invitation of the Congolese government, to rout Hutu military forces that had fled Rwanda after the genocide 14 years ago. They arrested General Laurent Nkunda, the leader of the Congolese Tutsi rebel group who up until last week was an ally of Rwanda and reportedly received arms, supplies, and soldiers from the Rwandan military.

These moves took the world by surprise, including the UN peacekeeping forces stationed in the Congo.

Experts are weighing in on whether these moves will eventually stabilize eastern Congo. But it is clear that the military build-up and shifting alliances mean more brutal fighting in the short-term and more suffering for countless Congolese families that simply want a safe place to live.

Civilians in Congo continue to pay the price in this long war - despite protections from the United Nations' largest peacekeeping force. Over 5.5 million Congolese have died in this conflict. To put the death toll in perspective, 400,000 people have died in Darfur in its six-year conflict, and 800,000 people died in the 100-day Rwandan genocide. In addition to the death toll in Congo, rape is pervasive - 23 percent of the population in eastern Congo have reported witnessing acts of sexual violence. Rape happens with impunity.

I just returned from Congo and found a heartbreakingly beautiful country that has been ripped apart by brutality and lawlessness. International media portray the conflict in eastern Congo as a proxy war between Congo and Rwanda. Unfortunately, it is far more complex. The conflict is primarily a fight over resources - vast amounts of minerals and rich arable land. To gain advantage, militias of all stripes attack villages, raping and slaughtering all who are in their way. Many soldiers, men and boys, have no political loyalty but are either forcibly conscripted or join a militia in order to survive. If they want to eat, they fight. Congo is in desperate need of jobs, functioning markets, and agriculture — in short, economic alternatives to war.

One million civilians - out of a population of 6 million in eastern Congo — have fled to displacement camps. As I traveled throughout the countryside, I was shocked on two accounts. First, eastern Congo is a beautiful, resource-rich land. It is lush and green, with forests of giant Eucalyptus trees, rivers and waterfalls, and areas rich in minerals. But I was also shocked to see that this land is uncultivated, crops are idle, and no commerce or trucks are on the roads. Instead there are displacement camps and armed militias roaming the roads and villages.

There are also many bases for the MONUC, the UN's peacekeeping force of 17,000 soldiers. These bases are enclosed, well-protected, and set away from the villages. I saw UN patrols but I never saw a soldier outside his vehicle or mingling with civilians. Few soldiers speak the local language, and many do not know the local communities, and have rarely used force to protect civilian communities, the key element of their mandate.

After numerous displaced Congolese were attacked last November, the UN Security Council voted to send in an additional 3,000 troops. This recognition of the enormity of the problem and the UN's willingness to augment existing troops is laudable. But to be effective, MONUC needs additional support and resources from the international community, including the United States, and must focus intensely on two objectives.

First, it must be willing to use deadly force to protect civilians. Without a credible military threat, attacks on villages will not stop. Second, MONUC needs to gain the confidence of the civilians it is protecting. Swahili-speaking soldiers need to be visibly present on the roads and in the villages in conflict areas. They need to break up roadblocks, allow freedom of movement, provide local stability and security, and report abuses from any of the military groups.

The UN's peacekeeping role is a vital one — both armed protection and local confidence-building. The Congolese people deserve both now.

Linda Mason is Chair of Mercy Corps' Board of Directors and founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

Editor's note: This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Boston Globe.