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Amid Clinton Visit, a Look at Persistent Troubles in Congo

August 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A report looks at international peacekeeping efforts in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited this week.
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JIM LEHRER: An update on the situation in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the eastern part of the country today, where government and rebel forces frequently clash.

NewsHour special correspondent Jason Maloney was there this spring, just as a new international peacekeeping effort was getting underway. He accompanied the United Nations’ chief of mission there on a tour of U.N. bases in the North Kivu province. Here is his report.

JASON MALONEY: In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations peacekeepers are facing fresh challenges to their 10-year mission here, how to secure millions of people as fighting has flared up again in recent months.

Over 5 million have already died as a result of this brutal conduct that is fueled by ethnic rivalries and a struggle over natural resources. Millions more have been displaced, as many as 35,000 in the last month alone.

The U.N. has, in fact, come under intense criticism for failing to adequately respond to this latest wave of violence against civilians, something that is at the core of its mandate here.

ALAN DOSS, U.N. mission chief, Democratic Republican of Congo: Well, our first challenge is protection, protection of civilian populations. And that’s a huge challenge, because of the size and complexity of the country. You know, this area alone, the Kivus, where we’re focusing on right now, is the size of California.

Vast Territory a Problem for U.N.

JASON MALONEY: Alan Doss is the U.N. mission chief in Congo. Under pressure to address the deteriorating security situation this spring, he traveled to the front lines for a firsthand assessment.

High in the air, it becomes immediately clear what the U.N. is up against here. It's a seemingly endless stretch of hill and jungle. An area the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi, the Congo only has about as many miles of paved road as Peoria, Illinois.

ALAN DOSS: If you're in Europe, you go skiing at this altitude. I don't think we'll be skiing up here, though.

JASON MALONEY: First stop on Doss's tour: the mountain town of Kanyabayonga. The base here is heavily fortified, high on a hilltop with strategic views over town and dug in with trenches and bunkers.

Soon, we're ushered into a tent for a military briefing, and it is clear why all these defenses are necessary. This is a hot zone of fighting between Congo's army, known as the FARDC, and a main rebel group, the FDLR.

LT. COL. AMIT GANESH, Indian Army for MONUC: On this route, the FDLR stopped a particular truck, which had about 25 occupants. They told the occupants to move out, and thereafter they burned that truck to ashes. On a later date, sir, we came to know, basically, a firefight between FARDC and FDLR, which resulted in eight FARDC personnel killed, including one officer and 13 injured.

Chaos of Peacekeeping

JASON MALONEY: Kanyabayonga is just one of such bases situated in the province of North Kivu. The area is home to a dizzying array of fighting forces, each battling for their own patch of this mineral-rich region.

Congo's own army, which the U.N. is tasked with working alongside, is sometimes just as predatory on the local people as the rebels. This is the chaotic new reality of peacekeeping in the 21st century.

ALAN DOSS: We are far from the classic model of peacekeeping. You know, the thin blue line separating two states, that's not the case here.

In North Kivu, we're dealing with 20, 30 armed groups, a national armed force that at times has disintegrated and is having to be rebuilt, foreign armed groups from Rwanda, from Uganda. You know, this is an incredible mix.

JASON MALONEY: The U.N.'s main concern right now is the FDLR, a militia led by men responsible for the Rwandan genocide in 1994, who then escaped into the Congolese bush.

The U.N. has been trying to help the Congolese army fight the FDLR, but this is never an easy task when the enemy can just melt away into dense jungle and your fighting partner lacks discipline.

ALAN DOSS: I said we would give him support to keep his troops on the front line.

JASON MALONEY: Doss says he's hoping that, if they can just win this battle, the end may be in sight.

Opportunity to End Violence

ALAN DOSS: What we see now is the opportunity to turn the last page on a history of violence and conflict that has ravaged this country, and particularly the eastern part of this country, for the last 15 years. I think we should consider that as a tremendous opportunity, but certainly not one that can be wasted. We have no time to lose.

JASON MALONEY: And so, with all the urgency of a political candidate in the waning days of a tough campaign, Doss leaves Kanyabayonga, and his trip switches into high gear.

There's a stop at a big U.N. base where Doss rallies the troops in an attempt to boost a morale battered by difficult conditions and overwhelming duties.

There's a stop at a pygmy village where the U.N. mission has built housing for one of Congo's most disadvantaged and discriminated against ethnicities.

ALAN DOSS: We're going to put a school here.

CONGOLESE WOMAN: Yes, I think it will be a good idea to have kindergarten.

ALAN DOSS: Yes, a kindergarten.

JASON MALONEY: And there are town hall meetings with local leaders where Doss listens to their concerns.

LOCAL CONGOLESE LEADER (through translator): There has been the problem of rape. There's the burning of houses. There have been killings and many flagrant violations of human rights.

JASON MALONEY: Winning the good faith of the local population is key to the U.N.'s success here, but it has not always gone very well. A series of recent massacres carried out by rebels have the population frightened, and a highly publicized attack last fall in the nearby town of Kiwanja, where more than 100 people were killed less than a mile from a U.N. base, caused fears to boil over into anger at what locals call the U.N.'s failure to protect them.

Though Doss admits mistakes were made in Kiwanja, he insists other lives were saved.

U.N. Forces Must Eventually Leave

ALAN DOSS: We were protecting 5,000, 6,000 people around the base we had in Kiwanja. We had at that point there 120 peacekeepers. They were protecting between 5,000 and 6,000 people who'd come around the base for protection.

So they were busy dealing with that situation. Could they have done more? We obviously will look at that and have looked at that. We have to look ahead, recognize that there are going to be difficult moments, difficult times, explain what we're doing, and perhaps then we can and should do a better job.

JASON MALONEY: Doss, a veteran of U.N. missions in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Liberia, knows the U.N.'s force in Congo won't be here forever. It's the thought very much on everyone's mind as we wind up our whistle-stop tour, arriving at the site of a new police building in the city of Beni. When complete, this will serve as a new training center for a police force that will be key in maintaining order for the day when the U.N. mission, known as MONUC, finally draws down.

Doss has been invited to preside over a local groundbreaking ceremony that, according to local tradition, involves pouring a toast over the foundation.

ALAN DOSS: I think personally that we are now thinking about life after MONUC, and we must. We must be working with the government to build its own national security forces, and that's a big job. It's a huge job in a country like this.

There are people in the armed forces we know who have committed violations, human rights violations. That has to be dealt with. But it is going to take time, you know. You won't rebuild and create an effective, loyal and competent military in a few weeks or months.

JASON MALONEY: But a life here after the U.N. seems a long way off, as the rebel FDLR rampage continues in North Kivu with hundreds killed, leaving a local population frightened and uncertain of their future.

This report is part of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting's "Fragile States" project, a partnership with The Bureau for International Reporting.