Across this war-scarred city of dirt roads, crowded markets, and security checkpoints, people know the importance of April 15.
This is the day the mandate for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is scheduled to expire. So by then, the UN Security Council must decide whether to extend, change, or scrap what is now – with almost 20,000 civilian and military personnel – the largest peacekeeping force in the world.
Many people here are nervously waiting for this decision. If the Security Council extends the Congo mission, they say, it will mean a continued march toward stability for the eastern city of Bunia and the rest of this massive, traumatized country.
Yet there is pressure to downsize. The demand for UN military assistance has ballooned in recent years, with five times as many peacekeepers spread worldwide in 2005 as in 2000. Donor countries are wary of missions with ever-extending end dates, and the UN itself says it must reevaluate the way it conducts peacekeeping and find new ways to spread increasingly strapped resources across complex, volatile regions.
But six months after a landmark presidential election that cost the UN half a billion dollars, the country remains tense. At least 150 people died in the capital, Kinshasa, last week in clashes between government troops and forces loyal to opposition leader and former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Concerns over slide back to war
Here in Bunia, one of the epicenters of a war that claimed some 4 million lives from violence, disease, and hunger, residents and UN personnel on the ground worry that an exodus of "blue helmets" will mean a return to chaos.
"You can download and cut the deployment in Congo," says Henri Boshoff, military analyst for the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies who has spent much time in the DRC. "And you can throw away billions and billions of dollars. Because it will return to where it was."
The UN came into Congo in 1999, soon after warring parties signed an agreement to stop fighting. But the cease-fire did not hold – neighboring countries were drawn into the fighting, and ethnic violence grew. Ituri province, of which Bunia is the capital, was particularly violent, with its own ethnic strife and massacres.
The next year, the UN sent almost 6,000 peacekeepers – a force that would become known by its French acronym, MONUC.
The fighting continued, and the peacekeeping mission grew. But with the help of UN forces, a transitional government took power in 2003, and much of the country returned to stability. This past December, the UN helped monitor the Congo's first free, democratic elections in more than 40 years.
In many ways, the UN has fulfilled its mandate: There is a solid cease-fire, and Congo has had democratic elections. But people on the ground here caution that the hard work is just beginning.
The country is still far from stable. Apart from last week's deadly clashes in the capital, which Mr. Bemba says were triggered by the government's attempt to assassinate him, skirmishes between the Army and various militias are common throughout the country's volatile east. In January, Congolese soldiers upset with their low pay rioted in Bunia, shooting, raping, and looting.
Meanwhile, the UN is trying to help the country develop a new Army, a mixture of disarmed militia fighters and government soldiers. It's a difficult process, with many experts worried that these new, mixed units will terrorize populations. This month, peacekeepers watched as one militia leader in Ituri district, Peter Karim, sent 130 fighters to surrender to and join the Army.
The peacekeepers are also working to find and demobilize child soldiers and are building roads in regions where infrastructure is all but nonexistent. They are helping set up a new court system and police force.
Basically, says Madnodje Mounoubai, the spokesman for MONUC, there is hardly a government function in eastern Congo that is not supported and funded by the UN mission here.
"Just because you've had an election, it doesn't mean that everything is OK," he says. "You need to build institutions."
UN needed in remote east
It only takes a walk down Bunia's main road to feel the massive MONUC presence. White SUVs with "UN" painted in black on their sides regularly zoom down the dirt thoroughfare, dodging the motorcycle taxis and steady stream of pedestrians. There are sand-bagged checkpoints at either end of the street, barbed-wire headquarters, and regular patrols throughout town – slow-driving armored cars crammed with gun-toting "blue helmets."
Some residents say they do get tired of the MONUC forces, with their guns and SUVs. There have been accusations of rape and other sexual misconduct by peacekeepers. Others complain that the armored cars drive over farmland, ruining crops. But most say that the peacekeepers cannot leave – and say they hope the Security Council recognizes as much.
"If they weren't here, there would be very bad things," says Bolemba Mambo, a Bunia resident.
On one recent afternoon, a UN patrol passed a makeshift Congolese Army checkpoint, and a truck filled with logs with dozens of government soldiers sitting on top.
Mr. Mounoubai, the MONUC spokesperson in Ituri, says he believes the Security Council understands the continued need in Congo.
"The UN has learned from other places and mistakes around the world that the sooner they pull out, the sooner they'll be back," he says. "I think the only reason the peace process is still going on, the only reason people are talking to one another still, is because MONUC is here."