Dispatch from Congo: 'We Are Being Exterminated'

Many of the stories Enough's field researchers hear while immersed in their work in some of the world's worst conflict zones don't make it into our policy reports, press releases, and Congressional testimony. Indeed, as each field researcher can attest, some of the most compelling stories and interactions come at the most unexpected times. We created Enough's Field Dispatch series to capture just that type of story - one that may not fit in directly with a policy paper but offers real illumination and insights into the situation on the ground.

Enough's Ledio Cakaj filed this new field dispatch from northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region terrorized by a marauding band of fighters known as the Lord's Resistance Army.

HAUT UELE DISTRICT, Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of Congo --
A resurgent LRA is terrorizing the population in the Haut Uele region of northeast Congo. Congolese soldiers deployed to the region have been unable to provide adequate protection and the number of UN peacekeepers in the area remains woefully inadequate. But better coordinated and resourced efforts by both Congolese and international security forces have the potential to protect civilians from LRA attacks. This is the second of two dispatches based on my visit to Haut Uele.

The Congolese Army in Haut Uele

The Congolese army has deployed close to 6,000 soldiers in Province Orientale, but they have utterly failed to protect civilians from LRA attacks. Most of the LRA attacks have taken place around three places -- Ngilima, Bangadi and Niangara -- where there is a significant army presence. In Bangadi, for example, there are at least 100 Congolese soldiers. Yet, Bangadi has been frequently attacked by the LRA in the last few months. In personal accounts, people in Bangadi report that Congolese soldiers simply do not respond when alerted to LRA attacks. Similarly, people in Ngilima said that the soldiers are too scared to confront the LRA; they say they have never seen a LRA rebel killed or captured by the Congolese soldiers. "The only time the [Congolese army] fights the LRA is when they happen to come across them by accident," said a local official.

In many interviews Congolese civilians accused Congolese soldiers of preying on the local population. Notoriously unpaid and unfed, soldiers steal from civilians, often by force at checkpoints along the main roads. "It is a daily occurrence," said a local NGO worker. "Civilians are either forced to pay or forced to work for the soldiers at checkpoints such as collecting wood or cleaning their boots and washing their uniforms." Lacking vehicles, Congolese soldiers needing to walk to their duty stations force locals to transport them on their bicycles or steal their bicycles at gunpoint. The stealing of bicycles is so common that the residents of Ngilima, in anticipation of a Congolese army troop rotation, declared December 27 as the "day without bicycles" and hid their bicycles from Congolese soldiers.

There are many cases of rape and sexual violence committed by the Congolese army. In Ngilima, we heard from the local population that there are consistently about six to eight rapes reported per month that are attributed to Congolese soldiers. Many more rapes go unreported. Killings also occur, mostly when civilians refuse to hand over their possessions to Congolese soldiers. An internal U.N. report cited eight killings of civilians by the Congolese army in Haut Uele during the month of November, with another four people injured. In Bangadi, we saw a Congolese soldier cut a civilian with a bayonet, because the civilian, who was driving a motorcycle, refused to give the soldier a ride to his barracks.

In interviews, a variety of Congolese army officials denied all abuses. According to the commander of the FARDC battalion in Bangadi, Congolese soldiers have never committed any crimes against the civilian population. The commander of the troops based in Ngilima said the population was lying. The FARDC troop commander in Dungu recognized that abuses had taken place but added that these were isolated incidents. "These are the problems of the man," he said. "Not of the organization."

Representatives from Congolese civil society organizations said that abuses had occurred where there was a clear lack of good leadership. They believe that the Congolese army and government should ensure command responsibility. Civil society members have also asked the United Nations mission in Congo, or MONUC, to condition aid to the army on good behavior. At the moment, MONUC supports Congolese soldiers in Province Orientale by providing daily rations for 6,000 soldiers and gasoline for seven army vehicles. MONUC officials said it was difficult for them to interfere in the internal affairs of the Congolese national army.

The role of the United Nations

The mandate for the United Nations mission in DRC, or MONUC, clearly prioritizes civilian protection, but their presence is thinly stretched in Haut Uele. A battalion of Moroccan peacekeepers is trying to offer protection to civilians but they have been unable to establish a presence in the worst affected areas. Promised reinforcements, in the shape of a Tunisian battalion, were supposed to arrive in June of 2009, but this was pushed back to February 2010. There are also fears that the Tunisians could then be deployed to neighboring Equateur Province, site of recent fighting between the Congolese army and a new rebel group.

The lack of peacekeepers to protect humanitarian convoys has forced aid groups to cease assistance to people in areas targeted by the LRA. After a series of LRA attacks on Congolese civilians who had just received food aid, and fearing attacks against their staff, U.N. and humanitarian organizations decided to stop the distribution of food in adherence to the "Do No Harm" principle. "Ideally we would need U.N. peacekeepers or Congolese soldiers to stay in the communities at least two weeks after the distribution of food," said an international aid worker. "But there are not enough U.N. troops and the FARDC cannot be trusted." As a result, many are starving. "We are being exterminated by the LRA and from hunger," a resident of Bangadi told Enough.

Where present, U.N. peacekeepers have generally acted as a deterrent to LRA attacks. It is telling, for instance, that LRA attacks occur largely in Bangadi, Ngilima and Niangara where there are no U.N. troops. Furthermore, a U.N. presence also almost always guarantees that Congolese soldiers are better behaved. This is the case, for instance, in Dungu, but also in Faradje where the U.N. presence is small. A Faradje local reports that Congolese soldiers behave much better when conducting joint patrols with U.N. peacekeepers. This is not the case when Congolese soldiers are alone.

MONUC troops have both the will and the means to protect civilians. In a response to indications that the LRA were planning to attack civilians during Christmas this December, MONUC troops deployed to Ngilima. Internal U.N. reports mention a thwarted LRA attack on December 25 as a result of joint MONUC-Congolese army patrols. MONUC deployment to Ngilima is, however, temporary and the troops are expected to leave soon.

Many agree that a MONUC troop increase would go a long way towards protecting civilians in northeastern DRC. A U.N. source said in an interview that U.N. workers had been requesting a troop increase for a long time. "Gaye [General Gaye, MONUC force commander] promised us long ago that he would send more troops here," the source said. "So far he has not kept that promise."

Read Part I of this post.

John Norris is Executive Director of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Ledio Cakaj is an Enough field researcher based in Kampala, Uganda.