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The Next Catastrophe in the Congo

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Co-authored with Rebecca Feeley, the Enough Project's researcher in eastern Congo

While the world laments the plight of Pakistani and Sri Lankan civilians caught between government offensives and repugnant armed groups, a similar scenario is unfolding without much international notice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese army, with support from U.N. peacekeepers, is in the early stages of an offensive against Rwandan rebels ensconced in the lush forests of eastern Congo. The deplorable situation there -- already one of the world's worst humanitarian crises -- is poised to get much worse. While the Rwandan rebels are undoubtedly a scourge to the local population and a major driver of ongoing conflict in Central Africa, the military action as planned will lead to more atrocities against Congolese civilians, create greater numbers of displaced and desperate people, and, because of the U.N.'s involvement, do lasting damage to the efficacy of U.N. peacekeeping.

Led by some of the architects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and bankrolled by their control of valuable mining areas, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, have terrorized Congolese civilians for nearly 15 years. We travel regularly to towns controlled by the rebels where the fear on the faces of local residents is jarring. Among a catalogue of abuses, they are responsible for some of the most vicious acts of sexual violence we have ever encountered.

The approximately 6000 rebels must be removed from eastern Congo, and their genocidal leadership means that military force is almost certainly needed. However, their presence in and among the local population and their knowledge of the terrain create a conundrum for military planners. When attacked, the FDLR melt into the forest to wait out their adversaries and then return to conduct reprisal attacks on civilians. Such was the case earlier this year after a month-long joint Rwandan-Congolese offensive. The number of FDLR fighters captured or killed was slight, but the cost to civilians immense. The fighting drove 250,000 people from their homes, and the FDLR responded by burning villages and raping and murdering hundreds of Congolese civilians.

This previous offensive and its tragic aftermath demonstrate again that the 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo -- the force tasked with protecting civilians -- remains badly overstretched. U.N. officials have asked repeatedly for reinforcements to bolster those efforts, but U.N. member states have been pathetically slow to provide essential support. And so, the latest offensive looks depressingly similar to the previous one. The inept and abusive Congolese army, with limited support from an inadequate U.N. force, will spend three months trying to dislodge the FDLR from the towns and villages they occupy. This has all the makings of a bloodbath.

And it gets worse. One of the Congolese army commanders taking part in the operation is a wanted war-criminal named Bosco Ntaganda. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for Ntaganda for recruiting child soldiers, and he is directly implicated in the massacre of 150 civilians late last year. U.N. officials tell us that Ntaganda's name does not appear on the official list of commanders for the upcoming operation, and that they trust the Congolese government's assurances that he will not be involved. This is a dangerous leap of faith. It is an open secret that Ntaganda will be on the front lines; Human Rights Watch accuses the U.N. of "burying its head in the sand."

The U.N. will undermine its already limited credibility with frustrated Congolese civilians if this offensive goes ahead as planned. And when civilians are attacked, Congolese politicians will undoubtedly blame the U.N. and the beleaguered reputation of U.N. peacekeeping will suffer another blow.

How to prevent this from happening?

The international community should take three immediate steps. First, donors should urge Congolese President Joseph Kabila to delay the offensive and work closely with his government to devise and support a more effective counter-insurgency operation in the future. Second, the U.N. Security Council and Congo's main donors should demand that the Congolese government immediately arrest Bosco Ntaganda and state unambiguously that U.N. peacekeepers will not support any operation in which he participates.

Third, and related, donor governments should provide resources for a more muscular U.N.-led effort to encourage FDLR defections. While the FDLR's leadership will likely fight to the death, the majority of the rank-and-file are susceptible to efforts to draw them out of the bush peacefully for repatriation to Rwanda or resettlement inside Congo. Perhaps the only positive outcome of the first offensive was the defection of nearly 500 FDLR fighters in the first three months of this year -- more than all of 2008. Building on this success will do more good for the people of eastern Congo than another catastrophic military offensive.

This article appeared originally on allafrica.com