What About Congo?

While the United States, Canada and NATO pour money into fighting apparently endless and likely useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Democratic [sic] Republic of Congo goes up in flames again.  UN troops are clearly helpless to prevent the fighting which has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and women raped and maimed.  They don’t have the support they need to be effective which begs the question, who are the people the world will protect?  Why not these people?  Or are we really into protecting people at all?

One of the arguments used by George W. Bush et al for going to war with Iraq was to stop the murderous dictator Sadaam Hussein from killing his fellow citizens.  I never believed that was the reason but some people did.  The reason I didn’t believe it was that the US has never seen fit to save the citizens of any country but its own from cruelty.  What I want to know is, why aren’t people howling about the cost being paid by the citizens of Congo and demanding that the world intervene to protect them from atrocities, if they were so upset about Sadaam Hussein?

Rebels vowing to take Congo’s eastern provincial capital of 600,000 people advanced toward Goma on Tuesday as Congolese troops and UN tanks retreated in a haze of fumes.

Adding to the melee, tens of thousands of civilians jammed the roads. Many were carrying huge bundles of clothes, pots and bedding on their heads. Even young children balanced sacks of food on their heads, walking along rutted roads in bare feet.

The United Nations refugee agency said it was struggling to prepare for the arrival of an estimated 30,000 civilians fleeing the fighting between rebels and government forces.

Some refugees, who had spent the night sleeping on ground muddy from tropical showers, lobbed rocks Tuesday at UN tanks with Uruguayan troops also heading away from the battlefield.

“What are they doing? They are supposed to protect us,” complained Jean-Paul Maombi, a 31-year-old nurse from Kibumba.

As some tanks fled the fighting, UN officials ordered staff to stay home Tuesday and away from rock-throwing mobs. The commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force resigned Monday after just a month on the job, and officials were hastily trying to find a permanent successor.

Peacekeepers fired into the air at one UN compound that came under a hail of rocks Monday, and city leaders said three people were killed. Mobs hurled the stones to protest the UN’s failure to protect them from the rebels, despite having 17,000 peacekeepers in its Congo mission.

Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has vowed to seize Goma, a lakeside city of 600,000 on the border with Rwanda in Central Africa.

Mr. Nkunda signed a cease-fire with the government in January, but defected because he said the government showed no interest in protecting his Tutsi people — a tiny minority of 3 per cent in east Congo — from Rwandan Hutu militiamen who escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Some half a million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered in that genocide.

But Mr. Nkunda’s ambitions have expanded since he launched a fresh onslaught on Aug. 28 — he now declares he will “liberate” all of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe with vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources. Congo’s vast mineral wealth helped fuel back-to-back wars from 1997-2003.

More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last two months, the UN says, joining 1.2 million displaced in previous conflicts in the east. Outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea have killed dozens in camps, compounding the misery.

UN efforts to halt Mr. Nkunda’s rebellion are complicated by the country’s rugged terrain, dense tropical forests that roll over hills and mountains with few roads. UN provincial chief Hiroute Guebre Selassie told angry civil leaders on Monday that Mr. Nkunda’s fighters also were using guerrilla tactics.

“We cannot use the helicopters to prevent them advancing, because they hide in the bush, they fight on many fronts, and they hide themselves among the population,” she said. “(That) strategy makes it very difficult for us to master the situation.”

On Monday, peacekeepers in attack helicopters fired at the rebels trying to stop them taking Kibumba, a village on the main road 50 km. north of Goma. But fleeing civilians say the fighters overran Kibumba anyway.

A UN helicopter gunship patrolled the sky Tuesday in Kilimanyoka, 10 km. north of Goma. Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said he expected the helicopters to soon attack their front line, which he said is within 20 km. of Goma.

The chief UN mandate is to protect the population. But since the peace deal it also is helping the Congolese army disarm and repatriate Hutu militiamen — by force if necessary.

Yet Mr. Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, claimed Tuesday the Congolese army has abandoned dozens of its positions to Hutu militiamen.

“It’s the Hutus who are on the front line and whom we are fighting, not the army,” he said. UN peacekeepers “leave us no choice but to fight on.”

Mr. Nkunda long has charged that Congolese soldiers fight alongside the militia of Hutus, an ethnic majority of about 40 per cent in the region.

Some 800 Hutu militiamen have voluntarily returned to Rwanda, the UN says, but the fighters recruit and coerce Congolese Hutu children and young men into their ranks daily — far outnumbering those who have returned home.

Civil leaders led by Jason Luneno said if UN peacekeepers cannot halt the rebel advance, the peacekeepers should leave Congo and “the people will descend into the streets to demand the government resign.”

Tensions also are high on the diplomatic front. Congo this week repeated charges that Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government is sending troops across the border to reinforce Mr. Nkunda. Rwanda denies the charges and the U.N. says they are unfounded.

The UN refugee agency said a team under “tight security” was heading to the village of Kibati to prepare for an influx of refugees. Wailing babies and children with worried frowns were among the thousands there who had no idea where they were headed.

“What can we do? We have nothing,” said Mr. Maombi, the nurse.

From The Globe and Mail

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