UN peace-keepers fear their mission to Congo is 'doomed to collapse'

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The Independent Online

A joke is going around among United Nations troops stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After months in the crossfire of an intractable war but ignored by their bosses in New York, the soldiersare speculating that their mission is code-named "DAF": Deploy And Forget.

A joke is going around among United Nations troops stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After months in the crossfire of an intractable war but ignored by their bosses in New York, the soldiersare speculating that their mission is code-named "DAF": Deploy And Forget.

Some of the UN troops are confined to the high-walled enclosures of the city barracks, where they shine their boots and wait for better news. Others are stuck in remote bases deep in the jungle, cut off from the outside world for weeks on end and sometimes having to duck as shells whistle overhead. All are struggling to remember why they were sent to Congo in the first place.

"We are supposed to have 1,200 people here - an infantry battalion, marine and aviation companies and medical back-up," said Col Khan Khalid, sector commander in the eastern city of Kisangani. "But we are just 47. And several times I lost hope of ever getting any more."

By now the UN mission to Congo (Monuc) should have 5,537 military personnel in the steamy cities and dense jungles to monitor a ceasefire signed by government and rebels 14 months ago. Instead the war rolls on, the peace agreement is in tatters, and just 250 soldiers have deployed. And even they may be sent home soon.

Fresh fighting this week, on the heels of a summer season of bloody confrontations, could spell the end of Monuc. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, and other UN chiefs will decide later this month whether to pull the plug on the mission, leaving the combatants - and 50 million desperate Congolese - to their fate.

Charles Petrie, a senior UN official in the eastern town of Goma, said: "I fear the Security Council will withdraw Monuc entirely. That would make a disastrous humanitarian situation even worse." Indeed, the United Nations, pressed by African nations to send a peacekeeping force to the Democratic Republic of Congo, thought long and hard before committing soldiers to a collapsing state whose terrain that boasts the densest jungle canopy after the Amazon basin.

There were serious doubts in New York about dispatching a force where there was quite clearly no peace to keep.

Monuc has been blighted from the beginning. On the government side, President Laurent Kabila has appeared intent on scuppering the mission, orchestrating anti-UN demonstrations in the capital, Kinshasa, and obstructing movement. Mr Kabila refused permission for 21 out of 32 flights last month alone, a UN committee was told this week.

Meanwhile the rebels have been fighting one another, usually close to UN troops. Last weekend a leadership struggle in the RCD-ML faction saw its leader, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, come under fire from his own men. He ran for cover in the safest place in town - the Monuc office.

In June a tiff between Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers in Kisangani blew up into a full-scale battle. The erstwhile allies spent six days lobbing shells at each other over the heads of Col Khalid and other "peace monitors".

Entire neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble as the combatants set up artillery positions in back gardens and fought hand to hand in the humid streets. Families crouching under mattresses were blown apart by stray shells. When it was all over 619 civilians and an estimated 300 soldiers lay dead.

Jean Boyla, a customs officer, stood by the blackened and roofless shell that was once his home and remarked wryly: "Our friends used to come here to drink and to listen to music. "Not any more."

At a diamond mine 25 miles north of the city, 40-year-old Kombozi Owesaka claimed Ugandan soldiers forced him to work for nothing. "If we refused, they whipped or tortured us," he said. Soldiers pocketed any diamonds.

Life is just as depressing behind government lines. In Kinshasa, President Kabila has grown increasingly isolated as the city crumbles around him. Fuel and food are chronically scarce: only one in 10 households eats three meals a day. Fear has become the instrument of rule as paranoid security personnel from the Department for Anti-Patriotic Activities arrest and torture suspected dissidents.

At the end of this month, Mr Annan will have to decide whether to send the promised 5,500-strong force into thisvolatile environment. It looks highly unlikely. "The mission is already dead in the water," said one UN insider last week. "But to pull out completely would kill all chances of peace."

UN policy in Africa is trapped between hubris and shame. Difficult interventions in Somalia and, recently, Sierra Leone, alongside the failure to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide, have caused it to treat the continent with kid gloves.

In that context, the likely outcome is a compromised "lame duck" mission, says Aidan Hartley, an analyst of the International Crisis Group. Monuc personnel would be confined to pen-pushing jobs in Kinshasa.

But the UN should now prepare to intervene should the dynamics of the war change, such as a sudden withdrawal by President Kabila's ally Zimbabwe, he suggested.

He added: "The future looks grim. The UN needs to understand that this war is going to get harder, not easier."

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