Most Americans don’t know much about wars and violence that took place during the Zaire-DRC Transition period. The news mostly didn’t cover it in the United States, usually because African problems are viewed to be uninteresting to American news viewers. As was pointed out back in 2005 by the Christian Science Monitor, “even a nonlethal car bombing in Iraq or a kidnapping in Afghanistan [got] more Western media coverage in a day than Congo [got] in a typical month of 30,000 dead.”
But media attention isn’t the focus of this update; rather I wanted to draw your attention to that figure and the year in which it was noted. 30,000 dead was a ‘typical month’ in the Congo in 2005. This is a staggering figure, but even more so when you realize that from 2003 through 2008 the United Nations officially labeled the Congo as being a post-conflict nation.
During the first and second Congo Wars, a period basically stretching from November 1996 to July 2003 with a brief reprieve between wars, the United Nations forces actively sought to create peace. They would meet with local military leaders in an attempt to create peace talks and promote an end to the violence. The mission of these forces was more of a Peace Creating Force. But, as soon as the official end of hostilities was declared in July of 2003, the United Nations completely shifted their focus. The Peacekeeping Mission went into full effect, and became a support for the Congolese government with little to no connection to sub-national and regional issues.
Instead of conflicts, the ongoing violence happening in Eastern Congo, including mass murder, mass rape, and constant pillaging and destruction of villages were considered individual crisis.
As Severine Autesserre points out in her book, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding, regarding the shift from a classification of war to post-conflict:
“This shift halted the few efforts at subnational conflict levels that interveners had previously considered. High level diplomats began considering local conflict as an exclusively internal matter that fell within the expertise of the Transitional Government. As a high-ranking UN official recalled, ‘The structures that had been able to deal with [warring] parties as [legitimate] parties disappeared.’”
Dr. Autesserre further discusses the problems this label created, particularly in regards to the actual UN Peace Keepers who came into the country unprepared for any form of conflict. Most of the Peace Keepers and support staff spoke only English and did not understand the local language. They were also uninformed on a lot of the local violence taking place. In one horrifying example, a boy had escaped a village being attacked by rebels that were raping all the women. He ran to the UN outpost to get help. The guard, not knowing any French or Lingala, was able to figure out what this boy wanted and went into the outpost. He came out a few minutes later and gave the boy a package of cookies and sent him away. Every woman in the village was raped.
Now, I remember hiking around valley surrounding Sarajevo with a former partisan defender of the city, and he would tell me story after story of how the UN Peace Keepers would avoid any actual conflict or personal harm. Serbian snipers were trained to never shoot the Peace Keepers with their blue helmets, as it might provoke them, but they had no problem shooting Bosnians within plain sight of these defenders. Ever since then I’ve wondered what exactly is the point of UN Peace Keepers?
Autesserre gives the Congolese view of these ‘peace keepers’:
“The peacekeepers wasted the Congo’s money (or money that international actors had earmarked for the Congo) on large cars, high salaries, and beautiful houses. They failed to fulfill some of their duties, in particular the protection of the population. Overall, the Congolese often saw the UN staff as useless parasites, whom they nicknamed Tourists in a War Zone.”
So, what can we do about this? Well, I’m going to write another post on a bottom-up perspective of peacekeeping, which would focus more on interacting with local militant groups and actually trying to understand what the root cause of a conflict is rather than simply stating it’s for resource control or because of a spill-over from the Rwandan genocide.