July 6, 2006

U.N.-backed operations displace thousands in Congo

By David Lewis

TCHEI, Congo (Reuters) - As government soldiers dozed in
the abandoned market stalls and excited U.N. peacekeepers
celebrated reaching the town, several days late, a handful of
civilians squatted in a mud hut.

The dozen or so -- those too old, young or ill to flee --
were being kept under close guard and were all that was left of
the population of 10,000 who lived in Tchei before the attack.

"Look at us, this is all we have," said a frail man in
tattered clothing who said his name was Jean.

"The militia have gone, our friends have fled...We hope you
will help," he added as U.N. helicopters clattered overhead,
bringing in more ammunition for the rag-tag army of the
Democratic Republic of Congo.

The operation to take Tchei in May was the latest in
U.N.-government offensives meant to defeat rebels in Congo's
lawless east before elections due on July 30th.

Just over a month later, the militia regrouped and mounted
a counter offensive, retaking the town and leaving the U.N.
with the prospect of a fourth offensive to seize Tchei.

However, such operations are being questioned by aid
workers who witness the results, have to clear up the mess and
have not seen Congo's east pacified and thousands of rebels

"These military operations have meant a return to violence
in many of these areas," an aid worker familiar with eastern
Congo told Reuters. "A year ago in Ituri we were helping
civilians rebuild shattered lives. Now all we are doing is
trying to save the lives we can."

In the past six months, U.N. and government forces have
launched raids on Congolese, Ugandan and Rwandan rebels, all of
whom continue to operate in Congo, three years after the
1998-2003 war officially ended.

The operations fall under the United Nations' mandate to
protect civilians and support the transitional government.

They are also politically driven, due to fears that Rwanda
and Uganda might send soldiers back into Congo to hunt down
their rebels, as they did during the past two wars.


Critics, including some within the U.N., say the results in
terms of rebels and militia captured, killed or repatriated
have been minimal, while the humanitarian consequences have
been vast.

"The bottom line is that our joint operations have failed,"
said a U.N. official, who asked not to be identified.

Once rebels were chased away, the official explained, they
often came back after the blue helmets left or were replaced by
government soldiers who abused civilians as much, if not more.

"A month later we are back to square one militarily so why
do we do it anyway?" the official asked.

In May, UNICEF and OCHA, the U.N.'s agencies for children
and humanitarian affairs, said that aid workers in eastern
Congo had to assist 120,000 newly displaced civilians every
month in early 2006.

"Ninety-six percent of the 356,000 people directly
assisted...fled as a result of military operations and various
fighting in these areas," the U.N. agencies said in a

Results have often appeared small. Operations against
Ugandan ADF/NALU rebels resulted in the neutralization of just
150 rebels during operations late last year and in early 2006.

There was no large-scale disarmament after the operations,
and, according to the U.N., about 120,000 civilians were forced
to flee their homes, are being fed by aid workers and still
cannot go home because of violence and harassment.

Flying over the rolling green hills of Ituri days after the
Tchei operation was launched, a Reuters reporter saw some of
the town's population of 10,000 huddling in small groups.

As the fighting subsided, Congolese government soldiers
returned from the front weighed down with whatever fleeing
civilians had left behind and they could get their hands on
during the battle.

They clutched chickens under their arms and led pigs and
goats through a U.N. camp as peacekeepers handed them glucose
biscuits and bottles of water.

Several dozen militiamen were reported killed, 24 captured
and 15 AK47 assault rifles and one 82mm mortar seized in
fighting that scattered gunmen into the bush.


A month later, most of the town's population, like more
than 1.6 million Congolese displaced by the war that has caused
four million deaths, still have not gone home.

Three years after the process of turning several hundred
thousand lawless gunmen from a range of government units, rebel
groups and bands of militia into a national army began, much
remains to be done.

Just 11 of the 18 newly integrated brigades due to be set
up before elections have been created. Those that are
operational remain ill-disciplined and poorly paid.

U.N. peacekeepers operate alongside these soldiers,
providing fire support from helicopter gunships and men on the

Other arms of the United Nations have been documenting
abuses committed by government forces in the east.

In Bunyakiri, a town in South Kivu province, where
government units were deployed to tackle some of the 10,000
Rwandan Hutu rebels still in the east, the abuses have reached
worrying levels.

"Between April and May, there were 69 rape cases reported
to the hospital, 12 of which were in one day and one of which
involved a 17-month-old girl," a humanitarian source told
Reuters. "Most of these were committed by the army."

The U.N. has now been forced to launch an inquiry into its
own soldiers' behavior during the joint operations.

A British newspaper reported this month that U.N. troops
colluded with government soldiers in the massacre of civilians
and the destruction of a village in Ituri in April.

"We were bound to be associated with the atrocities
committed by the Congolese army," said the U.N. source. "Its
not a very good idea to do joint operations with allies like