The long-running conflict in Congo is the world’s deadliest since World War II. This year, the Congolese military began to direct its efforts toward combating the FDLR, (Les Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda), a Hutu militia. The FDLR has been raiding villages in the provinces of North and South Kivu in eastern Congo, which borders Rwanda. Human rights groups charge both sides with killing civilians during the ensuing violence.
The 19,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym MONUC, has supplied ammunition and food that support the Congolese military. Earlier this year, U.N. legal advisers warned that U.N. troops should not be supporting the Congolese military if there is a likelihood its forces will engage in human rights violations in Kivu. But that advice was not followed.
Human Rights Watch calls for the embattled U.N. mission — set to expire in two weeks — to cease backing the Congolese military.
“We knew this was a risky operation…we have no other option,” said Alain Le Roy, under secretary general for peacekeeping operations, in a New York Times interview last week.
The bottom line: “For every rebel combatant disarmed, one civilian has been killed, seven women and girls have been raped, six houses have been burned and destroyed and 900 people have been forced to flee their homes,” calculated U.K.-based Oxfam.
According to the Human Rights Watch report:
The attacks against civilians have been vicious and widespread. Local populations have been accused of being “collaborators” by one side or the other and deliberately targeted, their attackers saying they are being “punished.” Human Rights Watch has documented the deliberate killing of more than 1,400 civilians between January and September 2009, the majority women, children, and the elderly. The attacks have been accompanied by rape.
In a region already known as the “worst place in the world to be a woman or child,” the situation has deteriorated even further. Over the first nine months of 2009, over 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centers across North and South Kivu, nearly double that of 2008, and likely only representing a fraction of the total.
In addition to killings and rapes, thousands of civilians have been abducted and pressed into forced labor to carry weapons, ammunition, or other baggage across the treacherous terrain by government forces and FDLR militia as they deploy from place to place. Some civilians have been killed when they refused. Others have died because the loads they have been forced to carry were too heavy.
Peacekeepers have made notable efforts to protect civilians which undoubtedly have helped to save lives, but in many instances they have arrived too late or not at all, leaving local people exposed to attacks with nowhere else to turn.
Almost 1 million civilians have fled their homes during the past year, and civilians have been targeted by forces on both sides: the FDLR, the Congolese army and even the Rwandan army.
Civilians have not found much protection by the UN peacekeeping mission. Security analysts suggest that the force could be asked to withdraw by 2011, when elections are next scheduled to take place.
The force will likely continue to struggle with its paradoxical mandate: to protect civilians and support the Congolese military. U.N. officials have long sought more peacekeepers for a country as large as Western Europe.
For more about the human toll of the conflict in Congo, see Worldfocus’ 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award-winning Crisis in Congo videos.
- Ben Piven
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