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Africa

Martin Kobler: German pacifist fights rebels in DRC

German diplomat Martin Kobler became head of the world’s largest United Nations mission (MONUSCO) four months ago. No easy task in the DRC, a country that has been at war for almost 20 years.

It's midday in December in the village of Bweremana in eastern DRC. Some 4,000 former milita fighters stand on a football pitch in the blazing sun, together with their families. They are waiting for Martin Kobler, head of the world's largest UN military mission: the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). It comprises some 20,000 UN troops. Kobler arrives by helicopter and walks towards the rebels who have just surrendered. His manner is friendly. "Good day, I am Martin Kobler, head of MONUSCO. And who are you?"

For almost 20 years various rebel groups have terrorized the people of eastern Congo. The rebels are fighting to seize control of a region rich in minerals. MONUSCO has been in the country for 14 years. For most of that time it achieved little and its reputation was poor. But for four months now MONUSCO has had a new intervention force of 3,000 troops with a more robust mandate and, with Martin Kobler, a new man at the helm. Kobler has called on the rebels to surrender. Whoever does not comply will face the weapons of the intervention brigade.

Former rebels have little to eat, nothing to do

Congolese people and UN blue helmets at the side of a road as a car approaches

Martin Kobler spent two days touring eastern DRC

The men and women in Bweremana who have surrendered are accommodated in a camp some 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Goma, capital of the province of North Kivu. They stand patiently in line and answer Kober's questions politely.

There are problems in the camp. The hygiene situation is poor, the former rebels have little to eat and nothing to do. Residents of the village where the camp is located are angry. An elderly woman seizes the opportunity to address Kobler directly. "Since the rebels came to our village, there's a shortage of food,"she complains. "As they don't get enough to eat, they go into the fields and steal our harvest and destroy the fields. If that continues, there soon won't be enough for us." Kobler nods and assures her: "That is why we are here. We have heard that there are problems and we want to help."

In Bweremana the German diplomat talks for an hour with former rebels, villagers and the only doctor. He listens to the report of the commander of the Congolese army FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) who is in charge of the camp. It is important for Kobler that the ex-rebels should be integrated into society as quickly as possible. He knows that previous demobilization efforts often failed because of a lack of work, food and prospects for the rebels. He wishes to avoid this and prevent the ex-rebels picking up their weapons again.

'Every problem has a solution'

Martin Kobler talks to Congolese soldiers

The new MONUSCO head values personal contact

Born in 1953 in Stuttgart, Kobler studied law and Asian philology in Bonn and Indonesia before becoming a diplomat. Together with his wife, he worked in Egypt, India and the Palestinian Territories. He then spent time with UN peace missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to German, English and French, he speaks fluent Indonesian and Arabic.

In August 2013 Kobler took up his new post as Special UN Representative for Congo and head of MONUSCO. He describes himself as an optimist. For him "there is no problem without a solution."

In his first four months at the helm, Kobler has given MONUSCO a thorough shake-up and has transformed it from a powerless spectator to a force to be taken seriously. He does not gloss over MONUSCO's past problems. "I read here in the paper that MONUSCO is now more popular but still has to work hard to win people's trust. That is good news for the end of the year. It's also the motto for 2014 – to convince you all that we are doing an important job," he told DW. One way of doing this is to move mission personnel. Kobler plans to relocate 1,000 posts from the capital Kinshasa to the east of the country.

Zero tolerance for war crimes

Kobler's first major success, together with the Congolese army, was the victory in November over the region's largest militia, M23. Kobler describes himself as a pacifist and is opposed to the use of weapons. But he knows:" We have to demonstrate our presence and use deterrent measures."

Before Kobler's visit to the east in December 2013, 20 people were brutally murdered in two villages in North Kivu. There were cases of sexual violence. Kobler lost no time in sending human rights experts from MONUSCO to examine the massacre. Their task is to write a report that precisely documents events and can be used in court. For Kobler, such brutality is unacceptable.

Martin Kobler talks to displaced people outside their hut

Displaced people tell Kobler they hope to return home one day

Sexual violence and the use of child soldiers top Kobler's list of unacceptable crimes. "These are war crimes," he says. "Perpetrators must be punished. With our new mandate, we will pursue this robustly and will also act and react militarily."

Bringing MONUSCO closer to people

Kobler spent two days touring eastern DRC shortly before Christmas, protected by heavily armed UN soldiers. His schedule was packed as he wanted to talk to soldiers from MONUSCO and the Congolese army, decorate UN soldiers for their services, and hear from the military and administrative authorities in the northern town of Dungu. It is Kobler's first visit to this part of the country, on the border with South Sudan and close to the Central African Republic, two other trouble spots in the region.

He takes time to talk to his soldiers and staff who are serving far from their families and fighting Joseph Kony, rebel leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). As photo after photo is taken of him standing with individual soldiers, Kobler smiles as genuinely as he did the first time the camera clicked. Despite the packed program, he makes time for personal contact, so that people realize that the MONUSCO he heads is different from the past, that it is close to people. In the past the civilian population in the region around Dungu often stood unprotected against LRA fighters who were marauding through the region. Kony is sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of numerous atrocities.

Kobler suddenly orders his convey to stop outside a school. His arrival surprises teachers and pupils alike but they are quick to improvise. The children sing a song, Kobler sits down next to a small boy and tries to talk to him. Many of the children here have suffered at the hands of the LRA. A 13 year-old boy tells Kobler that his family fled. He himself was beaten, the rebels killed his brother.

Martin Kobler surrounded by children at a school

Kobler made an unscheduled stop at a school to talk to teachers and pupils

Pacifist who knows when to use force

The convoy drives on but it's not long before Kobler calls for another stop outside some simple huts. Again he meets people who fled from the LRA, this time an elderly couple and two young men. They want to return to their home villages when the LRA has been defeated. "We are doing our best," Kobler assures them.

He has declared war on the rebel militias in eastern DRC, one after another. Whoever surrenders voluntarily will be helped to reintegrate into society. Those who refuse will be fought offensively. Kobler knows how important it is for people to have a perspective. Before he climbs into the helicopter to leave Bweremana, he calls to the FARDC commander:"Give these people something to do!"

For many people in DRC, Martin Kobler is a hero, a man who will bring the MONUSCO mission to a successful conclusion. Kobler knows the country is still far removed from peace and stability. This is what he will fight for, on all fronts. A pacifist at heart, he is still prepared to give the order to shell a rebel position – in order to end 20 years of violence in Congo.

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