Sunday, 26 May 2013

DR Congo: UN's failed illusion of security in the east

It was a familiar sight at Kanyaruchinya, just a few kilometres north of the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: White armoured personnel carriers had taken up positions along the road.

Against the backdrop of Mount Njiragongo, the majestic volcano that towers over the town, Indian soldiers, some sporting magnificent handlebar moustaches, sat around peering into their binoculars.

Huddled behind the peacekeepers, a knot of local residents waited to see what would happen next. The sound of shelling rang out from the surrounding hills. Then silence. Nothing. The crowd dispersed. People in the east of DR Congo have an odd relationship with the UN peacekeepers.

Known by its acronym Monusco, it is the largest such force anywhere in the world. But, despite being around 20,000 strong, it has conspicuously failed to keep the peace here in the decade and more of its existence.

In November, these same Indian officers had assured me, and the population of Goma, that the rebels would never take the city.

A few days later, I saw them standing by and watching, as the rebels marched into town. And so the people here have learned to expect little from Monusco. And yet, whenever the fighting starts, the people seek the cover of those white armoured vehicles and the men in the blue helmets. The protection they offer is little more than an illusion. But at the moment, it is all they have.

Markets and music
Even when the fighting is close enough to hear, and see, life in Goma tends to carry on at its usual frenetic pace.As we bump our way through town, the place teems with energy and life. Everywhere, it seems, someone is selling something by the side of roads paved with the rubble and debris of periodic volcanic eruptions. Here a woman offers a combination of mismatched flip-flops and eggs; there, an open air furniture showroom sells beds and armchairs on what appears to be the roof of a derelict building.

The UN secretary-general was greeted by angry victims of sexual violence on a recent visit to Goma. Disconcertingly, the wares are displayed at eye-level, because years of lava flow has raised the level of the street.

Children queue up outside a shack to watch television. A gaggle of cyclists somehow manage to stay upright as they wobble along with sacks of charcoal strapped four-high to their bikes.

We swerve to avoid an abandoned 4x4. It has only got three wheels left, propped up on some rocks in the middle of the road, left there no doubt by one of the thousands of NGO workers who thrive and multiply amid the chaos.

We pass what looks like a cement factory.

Atop a giant pile of sand, a group of people appears to be dancing.

Two men wearing black trousers and shiny purple shirts are swinging their hips alongside a woman in a shimmering turquoise satin evening gown.

It turns out they are shooting a music video.

At that same moment, a UN official calls to say there is shooting of a more lethal kind going on nearby.

Vast wealth
We end up in a hospital on the outskirts of town, a small boy - he cannot be more than 18 months old - lies on a stretcher, bleeding from a shrapnel wound to the head.

An older man is brought in unconscious as doctors cut his clothes off his badly burned body.

These are the victims of a stray shell that landed on the outskirts of the city. At the point of impact, half a home has been destroyed; the force of the explosion has flung a child's teddy-bear up onto the neighbours' roof.

This has been going on for nearly 20 years now. Next door, tiny, resource-poor Rwanda has emerged from the nightmare of its genocide, and is using aid money to build a tech-savvy nation with a thriving economy. In Uganda too, armed rebellions now seem a thing of the past.

But pity poor DR Congo: Rather than bringing prosperity, the vast stores of wealth buried beneath the landscape here - the copper, the tin and the coltan - seem to bring only perpetual conflict.

Partly it is the fault of a weak, corrupt government in the distant capital Kinshasa, separated from the east by a 1,000 miles of impenetrable jungle.

But those thriving neighbours have also had their part to play: Rwanda and Uganda have for years waged proxy wars on Congolese soil. Some say they're still at it, indeed that their prosperity comes at DR Congo's expense.

As for the United Nations, Monusco's nickname here is "Mon-useless".

On a lightning trip to Goma on Thursday, UN chief Ban Ki Moon visited a hospital for the victims of sexual violence. He was greeted with chants that mixed anger with anguish. He held a press conference, and then he was off.

Next stop, Addis Ababa, where today he joins the great and the good from across the continent in heralding a new era: Africa Rising.

It does not feel like that here.

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