In the same week that UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon announced that 2,000 UN peacekeepers from MONUC, the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) would be pulled out
, new violence erupted in Equateur province
– this time in the provincial capital of Mbandak. These events shed more light on the volatile situation that continues to simmer in this little known part of the DRC, and on the important role that UN peacekeepers play in protecting the population.
I traveled to Equateur in February with consultant Steve Hege, where we had a chance to visit
several areas affected by the conflict, including Dongo centre, the epicenter of violence at the end of last year. We were also able to interview several people displaced by the conflict, among them, a 32 year old man named Alex.
Alex fled his home in Dongo centre in October of last year when a Lobala witchdoctor named Odjani waged a violent campaign against a competing tribe, the Boba. The conflict in Dongo displaced almost the entire town. People fled in wooden canoes across the Oubangui River to neighboring Republic of Congo or walked for days through the jungles, further inland.
When we interviewed Alex in February, he was living in Gemena, several hundred kilometers from Dongo. He told us that the day of the attacks, he saw Odjani’s men go house to house in Dongo demanding to know which of the villagers belonged to the Boba tribe. He then saw them assault people with machetes, including a woman who was pregnant.
Although he is ethnically Ngwaka and not Boba, given the violence he witnessed, Alex did not feel safe and decided to flee with his two wives and children to the Republic of Congo. On his way to the port in Dongo centre, Alex was stopped by some of Odjani’s men who asked if he was Boba. He said he was not – but the armed men said to him, “If you are not Boba, then why are you fleeing with all of your things?” The men then attacked him with machetes, seriously wounding his arm, and leaving him for dead.
His wives and children were able to escape to the Republic of Congo, and eventually, after the situation calmed down, Alex was able to reach them on the other side, in a town called Bétou, where many refugees were sheltering. While fleeing, he saw his house burned down by Odjani’s men.
Despite the fact that in Bétou Alex and his family were able to receive food assistance, plastic sheeting and mosquito nets, his aunt suggested that he come back to the DRC and stay with her in Gemena. Alex told us that the situation was actually better in Bétou because they are able to get some assistance. In Gemena, his kids are not able to go to school, because he can’t pay the school fee. To earn some money, he makes soap which he then sells. In Dongo, he lived well – he had his work and his own personal belongings – but in Gemena, life is difficult. Alex told us that he will not go back to Dongo centre, he said there is no peace there. If Odjani were arrested however, he would consider returning and rebuilding his house.
While the conflict in Dongo and greater Equateur province is often described as a simple clash over fishing rights, the reality remains that underlying political and ethnic tensions
continue to fuel Odjani’s insurgency. In the meantime, humanitarian needs persist
as people like Alex and his family are prevented from returning home and more Congolese continue to be displaced.
Rather than adequately addressing the root causes of the conflict in Equateur and mitigating the potential for additional violence, the government recently blamed
MONUC for not doing enough to stop the attacks on Mbandaka. The government has been calling for MONUC to withdraw its troops in recognition of the country’s 50th anniversary of independence in June and they are trying to use the recent violence in Mbandaka as an example of why MONUC should leave.
The reverse is true. As we saw for ourselves, and as local people and local authorities confirmed, MONUC’s presence in Equateur was critical to quelling the violence at the end of last year. In addition to providing protection for Congolese civilians, the mission provided logistical support to the Congolese army to carry out operations against Odjani and also supported the humanitarian response through escorts and logistics.
More than anything, the ongoing situation
in Equateur is an example of why the withdrawal of MONUC peacekeepers is premature, especially as long as the Congolese government and armed forces remain incapable of dealing with these types of crises themselves.
April 14, 2010
| Tagged as: DR Congo