Congo: UN scrambles to better protect civilians in wake of mass rape

The UN's largest peacekeeping force failed to prevent mass rape by Congo rebels in July. Now it's pushing to be more proactive – and more innovative – in its mission to protect civilians.

Katrina Manson/Reuters
A United Nations peacekeeper stands guard in the eastern Congo as a helicopter lands carrying the UN special representative on sexual violence last month. In the wake of its failure to prevent the mass rape of 300 women, girls and boys last July, the UN has been seeking new ways to protect civilians in the 15-year-old conflict.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

A woman working alone on her farm in a remote corner of eastern Congo is usually a worrisome sight. It's there, among her beans and potatoes, sorghum, cassava, or cabbage, that she is especially vulnerable to robbery, abduction, and rape – crimes committed throughout Congo's nearly 15 years of crippling violence.

"When we see lots of people in the fields, especially lots of women, and lots of people walking, it's a good sign," says Maj. Satyender Singh, a commander for the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force, known by its acronym, MONUSCO.

"When we don't, then we at MONUSCO get very, very worried," says Singh during one of his battalion's regular farm patrols outside his base in Rugari, a rough, 90-minute drive from the regional capital, Goma.

After being lambasted for failing to prevent the mass rape of more than 300 women, girls, and boys in a July rebel rampage near the town of Luvungi, MONUSCO has been scrambling to find more innovative ways to fulfill its mandate of protecting civilians.

Regular 'farm patrols'

It has renewed its focus on regular farm patrols along with a range of other proactive measures, such as escorts for civilians on market days, temporary teams of UN staff deployed to assess security and make protection recommendations in especially dangerous areas, and regular meetings between peacekeepers and community leaders. Peacekeepers are even passing out UN base phone numbers to locals, as Singh did often during his patrol.

On a warm and humid Tuesday in October, Singh and 15 troops patrolled the lush farmed hills above Rugari.

"Jambo! Habari?" (Hello! How are you?), asked Singh in Kiswahili, the area's lingua franca. With an interpreter at his side, he stopped to talk to a few people, asking about activity like looting by armed groups or police, or Army harassment.

While planting climbing beans, Françoise Nyiramakuta said she still worries about coming to her fields alone, but that she now has faith that the peacekeepers' frequent patrols will protect her. "I do come [to the farm] because I know when there is a problem, they come [right away]," she says.

The peacekeeping mission here is among the most difficult in the world, according to experts. The terrain is a morass of thick forests, mountains, and valleys. There are few roads and most are unpaved, potholed – obstacle courses only passable with four-wheel-drive vehicles. Many areas lack strong state authority and basic services. Some are hours or days away from the nearest UN base.

Some say the peacekeepers' job is nearly impossible because there are simply not enough troops. Congo is roughly the size of Western Europe. And, although MONUSCO has more than 18,000 soldiers, there are about 10 million Congolese living in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu alone.

"The places where civilian protection has worked have tended to be cases where you have a pretty high ratio of troops to area," says Richard Gowan, associate director of Managing Global Insecurity at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "They tend to be quite small places like Haiti or, beyond the UN, like Kosovo."

Of MONUSCO, he says, "If you look at the ratio between the soldiers it has and the area it is trying to secure, it's in a very, very difficult position indeed."

Nearly all the civilians at the bustling Friday market in Masisi center – several hours northwest of Goma – said there should be more peacekeepers. They protect the population effectively when they are nearby – their mere presence is a deterrent, several said. But for those like Feza Furaha, who live in remote areas several hours from a UN base, the fear of violence continues.

"To see them here, mingled with the population, it is a very good thing," she says of the troops scattered through the market. "Yet, in my place, Ngesha, people still live in fear."

At 4 p.m. later that day, peacekeepers left their base to patrol a route many would use to head home from the market. Such escorts occur in other areas as well and have for some time. Some draw hundreds who wait to walk with the troops.

A need for standard practices

Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, lauds the UN for trying things in Congo that have not been done elsewhere, such as deploying joint protection teams. These multidisciplinary groups, with members from human rights, civil affairs, and other UN divisions, spend a few days assessing security in especially unstable areas and make recommendations to military personnel.

But the lack of standard operating procedures for regular contact between peacekeepers and the population is a serious weakness, she says. "I think on this the UN has moved far too slowly."

Celine Bullman and Lotta Ahola are trying to improve that integral link. They are civilian observers on a joint monitoring team with UN police who aim to connect with local populations and facilitate communication with peacekeepers to improve security. Unlike the protection teams, they are deployed permanently. The monitoring teams are a "big innovation," says Séverine Autesserre, a political science professor at Barnard College in New York who is living in Goma while working on her second book about Congo.

In the rural hamlet of Karuba, Ms. Bullman and Ms. Ahola met the leaders of several localities on a recent day. They asked about recent threats by armed groups, human rights violations, and the community's relationship with national and MONUSCO forces. They learned of a rape case and a clash between a Congolese soldier and locals that left two people dead. Later that day, Bullman and Ahola reported their findings to the MONUSCO battalion commander in charge of the area.

Both women see their job as central to the UN mission's mandate to protect civilians. "We are sensors in the field and can send signals back to Goma," Ahola says. "We hope to be early warning signs."

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