July 11, 2006

UN-backed operations displace thousands in Congo

By David Lewis

TCHEI, Congo -- 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 disarmed.

"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 statement.

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 4 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 ground.

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. "It's not a very good idea to do joint operations with allies like these."