Sunday, June 14, 2009

Insights from a MONUC Peacekeeper

On my way out of Rwanda, I was waiting in line at the airport (after grabbing a kivuguto from the brand- new Bourbon Coffeeshop) with a group of MONUC (la Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo) peacekeepers. One of the officers, a major, was in line behind me and made small talk. He was headed back to New Delhi for vacation after having served a year in Eastern Congo. Realizing that the line wasn’t moving and that I had a unique opportunity to ask someone fresh from the field questions about what was happening on the ground, I engaged him in conversation.

What he told me was astonishing. In the past several months, the Rwandan and Congolese governments have reconciled. As proof of their new cooperation to stop the violence in Eastern Congo, they launched a several-week joint sortie in the Kivu forests to drive out Hutu extremists who had escaped there after the Rwandan genocide. Meanwhile, the Congolese government (with Rwandan strongarming, no doubt) convinced Laurent Nkunda’s Congolese Tutsi forces to join the Congolese Army.

I asked the major how that was working. “Not at all,” he said. Nkunda’s forces had been paid $120 a month; now, as part of the Congolese Army, they earn $10 a month. Worse, the Congolese Army hasn’t been paid in four months. Such an arrangement is hardly sustainable. Further, since the Congolese Army has arms but no food, they have resorted to pillaging.

It seemed to me that Nkunda must have a lot of money. I asked the major where it came from. “The mines,” he said. Different groups have seized different Congolese mines, extracting resources and shipping them out via Goma Airport. “The FAR are out there, too,” he said, referencing the genocidal Rwandan Armed Forces. He told me that they had taken over several lucrative mines, and the funds earned from extraction went toward lining their pockets and purchasing arms—arms used both to protect their strongholds and potentially launch a sortie into Rwanda, to throw out the current government. This is the unfortunate consequence of the lack of rule of law in the Kivu Region of Congo—state capacity is so low that such activities continue unabated.

I had heard from colleagues and friends in Rwanda that Eastern Congo had settled down since Presidents Kabila and Kagame (of Congo and Rwanda, respectively) had begun to cooperate. “Maybe they’re talking,” he said, “but the real change must happen on the ground. And it’s as bad as ever,” he said, looking at the floor and shaking his head.

I asked him about how everything was working on the ground, particularly in light of the newly-integrated Congolese Army. “We are confused as to who belongs to which group, and who can be trusted. We don’t know who we’re fighting against,” he said. I couldn’t believe how unguarded he was. “In the field, it’s impossible to know.” He also talked about working for the UN. This was his first UN deployment. In India, he was a senior officer in the army. “I have been here for one year, and they asked me to extend,” he said, “but I’ll never do it [work for the UN] again.” He explained that MONUC is comprised of peacekeepers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uruguay, and Paraguay, and only at the top levels were they able to communicate effectively. The lower-level peacekeepers could not communicate with each other in a common language, and he said it was frustrating. “It’s disorganized, and orders aren’t always understood.”

With so much confusion among peacekeepers added to all of the chaos in the field, I wonder how MONUC will be able to bring peace, let alone keep the peace, in Eastern Congo.

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