Protesters in eastern Congo accuse UN peacekeepers of failing to do enough to protect them from lethal attacks by rebels. Some Congolese are now arming themselves and joining militia groups out of desperation.
Hundreds of people staged a demonstration in Beni, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Wednesday (22.10.2014) against the presence of the UN stabilization force, MONUSCO, in the country. Witnesses say the protesters set fire to tires outside the UN base in Beni, calling on the international troops to leave. The UN peacekeepers fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd.
The protests were triggered by the deaths of two youths, who died when they ambushed a patrol - together with other youths - of UN blue helmets and Congolese troops on the evening of the previous day. Civil society groups say the youths, armed with machetes, spears and stones, had tried to lynch the soldiers and were hit by bullets in the ensuing clash.
"MONUSCO is supposed to keep the peace," one protester told Deutsche Welle. "Why are they turning their guns on the people when we only want peace. We demand that MONUSCO leave Beni immediately," he said.
The mandate of the UN stabilization mission includes protecting the population from attacks by the numerous rebel groups in the country. Uganda's ADF rebel group still operates in the east of the DRC despite attempts to disarm it which were launched at the beginning of the year. In recent weeks, ADF rebels have killed around 80 people and local residents are seething with anger at what they perceive as the absence of proper protection.
Peacekeepers vow to keep up struggle against ADF
MONUSCO spokesman Charles Bambara told DW's French for Africa service that the UN mission had started a probe into the deaths of the two youths."We will await the outcome of the investigation before we confirm any details," he said.
In the meantime calm appears to have returned to Beni. Bambara, however, denied all knowledge of a demonstration on Wednesday. MONUSCO nonetheless is trying to gain public approval of its work in the town. "The battle against ADF will continue. We are on your side and are here to solve problem of the ADF attacks," said Jean Baillaud, the UN force's deputy commander in Beni. He stressed that they wanted to work with all actors in the cause of peace."We will not cease until we achieve tangible results," he said.
But MONUSCO is losing the confidence of the population and repeated calls for calm have little impact. Local residents are afraid of the ADF, which still has an estimated 400 fighters.
Rebels, armed with axes and machetes, killed more than 20 people in the village of Eringeti as recently as last Friday. A survivor of the raid told the news agency AFP that the rebels had warned the villagers that "they should not send their soldiers after them if they wanted to be left in peace." Many Beni residents have already fled.
Citizens' militia as a last option
Others are buying weapons. Market traders say there is a big demand for machetes. Local residents want to protect themselves from the rebels and are setting up militias. Some told DW that "as long as there is no security here, we will look after things ourselves." It was better, they said, to face up to the prospect of death rather than being caught unawares.
On Tuesday, the mayor of Beni, Nyonyi Bwanakawa, appealed to concerned residents in a radio broadcast to join the army or the police rather than taking the law into their own hands. "If one of these young people were to be killed under unfortunate circumstances, how could we possibly try and explain that away," he said.
MONUSCO's rules of engagement were changed last year. With extra troops and a more robust mandate, it was determined to defeat "all negative forces" in the DRC, beginning with the M23 rebel group which had taken control of swathes of North Kivu.
After M23 was routed, the blue helmets turned their attention to the ADF. But analysts have their doubts about MONUSCO's strategy. "It is clear that you can't neutralize an armed group just by bombarding it," Thierry Vircoulon, director of the International Crisis Group's central Africa project, told DW on Monday (20.10.2014). MONUSCO and the Congolese armed forces had so far only succeeded in fragmenting the ADF. They were now responding with retaliatory attacks.