As Congo collapses, France steps in

Outside the Nyakasanza Catholic church, child soldiers with rifles roam streets littered with spent casings, the remnants of fierce fighting the day before.

Inside the crowded church, the local priest wants his flock to ask why.

"It is not the foreign people who must make us understand that we must live together," says Father Donné Uringi, his voice booming over the church's crackling loudspeaker. "It is not them who we must ask why Bunia is destroyed today."

After years of ethnic strife in this mineral-rich Ituri province of Congo, the United Nations is stepping up its effort to stop the bloodshed with a French-led 1,400-strong multinational force, which began arriving Friday. But it is unclear whether the additional foreign peacekeepers, currently set to stay only until Sept. 1, will have a strong enough mandate to bring security to this region.

Among the most pivotal issues: Can or will they disarm the ethnic militias who have clashed here since the war in Congo broke out in 1998?

Calming this northeastern cauldron, where many of Congo's various ethnic groups live, is seen as key to securing peace in the country as a whole.

"The next two weeks are crucial for the Congo," says Nigel Pearson, an aid worker with the Swiss group Medair who has lived in Ituri Province for more than a decade, "Will there be enough troops? Will they have the power to intervene? Or will this be just another vague gesture from the West?"

At war since August 1998,the Democratic Republic of Congo now has a peace treaty and, at least on paper, a transitional government. But without security, those agreements mean little.

The new mission

The new French-led contingent, expected to trickle in over the next few weeks, is a reinforcement of the existing UN force in Congo, called MONUC, which numbers 8,700 and is tasked with keeping the peace in a country one-fourth the size of the United States.

Until now, most of these peacekeepers have been poorly equipped soldiers from developing countries like Uruguay and Morocco who see participation in the UN missions as a way of keeping their armies paid.

"MONUC is only as good as we make it, and that means the P-5 countries have to commit," says Mr. Pearson, referring to the five countries with permanent seats on the Security Council. "That's something they've never yet done."

Although existing MONUC peacekeepers do have the authority to protect civilians, that mandate has been thus far interpreted very narrowly. The new multilateral force has more direct power to protect civilians and is authorized to use force if necessary to restore security in Bunia.

But there are problems with their mandate as well. They have no power to forcibly disarm combatants, and the rebel group that now controls the city, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), has made it plain that they have no intention of disarming voluntarily.

Nor does the new force's authority currently extend beyond the city limits to the surrounding villages where ethnic massacres have reportedly taken place.

"It seems like their mandate is too small, just Bunia," says Father Jan Mol, a spry white priest who has worked in this region for decades. "In my view, they must demilitarize the whole of Ituri province because that's where the warlords are. They must take guns away from everyone who is not part of a regular army."

Political leaders of the various factions had been scheduled to meet Wednesday for talks organized by the United Nations, but whether that meeting will be held is now in doubt.

Meanwhile, the new mission has had a rocky start.

Less than a day after a French advance team of about 100 troops arrived, fighting again erupted in Bunia, forcing the United Nations to take refuge in their headquarters while gun battles raged outside. Nervous Uruguayan peacekeepers kept watch over the UN peacekeeping mission's blue and white headquarters, under orders not to fire unless fired upon.

Meanwhile, several thousand refugees who had taken refuge in the compound during fighting last month cowered under tarps, at the mercy of stray bullets and mortar fire.

Aid workers and local people say that, since the war in Congo started up to 50,000 people have died in the Ituri region - not just in battle, but from disease or starvation. Father Irungi lost two priests and many parishioners in six days of fighting between armed factions last month.

When the advance team for the French peacekeepers rolled into downtown Bunia Friday, moneychanger John Luaf sat watching from the shade of a multicolored umbrella, stacks of Congolese bills on a table in his stall and US dollars hidden in a book about how to make peace.

Nearby, a small, but ecstatic crowd was cheering the French arrival, shouting: "Bunia is free, Bunia is free."

A weary populace

Even Mr. Luaf, who kept to his stall, acknowledged that the French Special Forces, who had come to pay their regards at MONUC, made an impressive sight. "I am very happy to see them," he said. "I think with the arrival of the French, we can now walk around town again."

Still, like most people here, Luaf is waiting for proof. He is wearily accustomed to the nimbleness that living in a conflict zone requires.

After clashes in May between Lendu and Hema militias over control of Bunia, Luaf plied his trade from refugee camps, where he stayed for three weeks.

It was this fighting last month - which set off a massacre and demonstrated the inadequacy of the smaller UN force - that prompted the dispatch of the new peacekeepers.

In launching an attack a day after the new force arrived, Lendu militiamen, who lost control of Bunia in the May clash, tried unsuccessfully to regain a foothold in the capital.

During the attack Saturday, the streets outside MONUC became the front line in the battle between the rival ethnic groups. Mortars and rapid volleys of machine gun fire and mortars split the air, while new and returned refugees streamed to the entrance of an already overflowing camp on UN grounds.

Although bullets whizzed through the compound, striking at least one refugee, the Uruguayans never fired back. The UN was simply in the crossfire, MONUC explained.

"Our mission," the sector commander, a Frenchman officer named Col. Daniel Vollot, explained wearily, "is to protect the compound and protect the airport."

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