Essay: Violence in Congo

By Erin Weir

The following is currently a web feature on PBS NOW

Last October I traveled to Congo with a colleague from Refugees International to assess the effectiveness of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the troubled town of Goma, the eastern provincial capital.

Shortly after we arrived, serious fighting broke out between government soldiers and the CNDP, an armed opposition group, just 30 minutes north of us.

While I was traveling the region, I had seen the beleaguered government soldiers at their post. They live in makeshift tents, untrained and often unpaid, on the frontlines with their wives and children. Many have been outfitted with only flip-flops and barely operable weapons.

The CNDP was led at the time by Laurent Nkunda, who was threatening to take Goma, despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease-fire brokered by the U.N. earlier that year.

As the CNDP began their advance towards Goma, a city of about 600,000, thousands of people were forced to flee their homes or sites where they had taken refuge. The renewal of violence in October had increased the number of displaced people in the region from 800,000 to well over a million.

A day after the fighting began, violent protests broke out in Goma as locals turned their anger on U.N. peacekeepers. They blamed the U.N. for failing to reinforce government forces, for allowing the opposition to gain control and for failing to prevent the displacement of civilians.

One young Congolese man was killed by U.N. forces when he forced his way into one of the U.N. compounds in Goma, despite a series of warning shots by peacekeepers. Later that day we looked on as the family of the dead youth carried his body from the hospital. It quickly became clear to us that the locals' anger would not dissipate any time soon.

The next day started out 'calm but tense' in U.N. parlance as we, along with staff from the U.N. and other NGOs, were increasingly confined to our offices and compounds for security reasons. We were all on edge and incredibly frustrated that all we could do was sit and wait as we watched the atrocities happening around us broadcast on the news.

The U.N. was struggling to stop the advance on Goma, with troops simply spread too thin. It was becoming increasingly clear that we would have to evacuate. I asked our driver if it would be wise to take the "Refugees International" signs off of our vehicle. He laughed and said, "We can remove the signs, but you're still white." At that moment, in the eyes of many Congolese people, foreigners—all foreigners—were to blame for the failure to prevent this new round of suffering.

Three days after the initial attack, we noticed a large number of abandoning government soldiers piling onto trucks and fleeing the town. Our driver looked nervous. A half an hour later he called us out of a meeting and told us we had to leave immediately. We jumped into the car and fled across the border into Rwanda.

After we—and a significant number of aid agency staff—evacuated, the crisis in Goma passed relatively quickly.

However, the wider crisis has not dissipated. There are over 800,000 internally displaced persons in the region who continue to be vulnerable to looting, to violence, and to chronic, grinding poverty.

Unlike us, these people do not have the option to simply pick up and leave when the situation gets tense. Efforts by the U.N. peacekeepers to keep people safe remain imperfect, and the humanitarian community continues to struggle to provide assistance to internally displaced people under ever more challenging conditions. But the efforts and the victories of these communities remain critical to the displaced population.