U.N. gets tough as militias terrorize eastern Congo
Goma/Nairobi (dpa) - Criticised as ineffective, the United Nations mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo has rung up yet another defeat.
Overnight Friday, the deadline passed for the voluntary disarmament of the country's militias and not even half of the 15,000 fighters in eastern Congo's strife-ridden Ituri region had handed in their weapons.
In reality, disarming militias was not the job of U.N. peacekeepers but of the new Congolese army.
Alas, that army does not exist, so the militias have been left to terrorize the civilian population.
"The worst humanitarian catastrophe is currently happening here,'' says Johannes Wedenig of the U.N. children's aid group UNICEF in the eastern city of Goma.
Yet because the political situation is so complicated and the conflict so long in running, the situation never features prominently in the media.
In contrast, the Darfur conflict in western Sudan, where there are relatively clear fronts, has moved donor nations in the past year to spend profusely. The international community donates 89 dollars a person for Sudan and 3.2 dollars for every Congolese.
In the east of the Congo, a huge country the size of western Europe, around 800,000 people have fled their villages. According to estimates of the International Rescue Committee, a thousand people continue to die every month from the effects of the conflict. Many of these are shot by plunder seeking militias; others flee to the bush where they are taken by hunger and disease.
Most of those who make it to refugee camps are traumatized. "Women have been raped, many have witnessed the murder of family members," says Wedenig.
"The conditions in the camps are horrible," he adds, saying there is only a tarp and a pair of wooden sticks for every family to build an emergency shelter.
And the rekindled fighting is making it difficult to provide food for the refugees.
"The aid workers often cannot reach the camps for days," Wedenig says. And since March, it has rained almost daily and people are starting to contract cholera.
Control of the region's natural resources is the primary concern of the numerous armed groups. As the world market for tin has risen threefold, militia leaders have won considerable profits controlling areas in the Congo where tin ore is extracted.
The U.N. mission so far has been able to act very little. The 17,000 soldiers they command in colossal Congo is exactly the same size as the force deployed to Sierra Leone, which is about the size of Ireland.
According to political research organization Crisis Group, at least 50,000 troops are needed to bring peace to the eastern Congo as the country's interim government in Kinshasa has nearly no influence in the remote area.
The deputy commander of the U.N. mission, Hussein Mahmoud, has now announced tough action against the militias.
"We will pursue them and apprehend them," he warned. Alas, the U.N. soldiers have more than adult soldiers to deal with. An estimated half of the militia forces are composed of children, the youngest of whom are elementary school age.