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The Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 2, 2010

UN 'ignored Congo rape warnings'

Original source

The Guardian

Community leaders begged UN officials for protection days before rebels raped more than 240 villagers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they claimed yesterday.

The attacks took place over several days, with victims ranging from a month-old baby boy to a 110-year-old great-great-grandmother.

The number of reported rapes between 30 July and 4 August has grown from initial figures of 179 and now stands at 242.

Survivors have blamed the FDLR rebel group – led by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who fled to Congo in 1994 – along with Congolese Mai-Mai militia.

The world's biggest UN peacekeeping mission, Monusco, said it was not informed of the incidents until more than a week after they began, despite having a base just 20 miles from the affected village of Luvungi.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has sent his assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, Atul Khare, to investigate the alleged lack of action from the UN mission in Congo.

Charles Masudi Kisa said his Walikale Civil Association first sounded the alarm on 25 July, telling Congolese army and local authorities that the withdrawal of soldiers from several outposts was putting people in danger of attacks from rebels. The military had abandoned every post from Luvungi to just outside Walikale for unclear reasons, he said.

Masudi said that on 29 July, acting on information from motorcycle taxis, he warned the UN civil affairs bureau in Walikale, the army and the local administration that rebels were moving in on Luvungi.

"Again we begged them to secure the population of Luvungi and told them that these people were in danger," he said.

When Luvungi was occupied on 30 July, Masudi heard from truck drivers forced to turn back. He passed on information to officials in the same offices. That same day, the UN sent text and email messages to aid workers warning them to be aware that armed rebels were in the area, much of it dense forest that provides convenient cover for fighters.

On 1 August, Masudi said, his group heard from some raped women who had escaped and reported that scores of rebels had overrun the area.

Roger Meece, the UN mission chief in Congo, said a Congolese army patrol moved through the area on 2 August, apparently removed a rebel roadblock, exchanged fire with some fighters, and got information suggesting "a dramatic decrease" in rebel and militia activity.

In fact, 200 to 400 rebels were occupying villages alongside the road and into the interior, according to reports from survivors. The UN says there are 80 peacekeepers at its Kibua camp near Luvungi.

Also on 2 August, Indian peacekeepers accompanied some commercial vehicles to protect them from the rebel roadblock and stopped in Luvungi. "How could they protect commercial goods but they could not protect the people?" Masudi asked.

The peacekeepers stayed long enough to arrest a Mai-Mai militiaman accused of trying to steal a motorcycle. But the villagers did not make any reports of what had happened in the preceding days, Meece said.

The patrol also stopped in another village, Bunya Mumpire, where many rapes were reported by aid workers. Meece said people there wanted to fight the arrested militiaman but again did not report that they were under attack. It's unclear what means of communication were available to the peacekeepers, who often travel without interpreters and generally do not speak the Kiswahili, French or Kinyarwanda spoken in the region.

On 4 August, the local chief came to Walikale and reported that the rebels had left and that large numbers of people had been raped. He spoke to Masudi's organisation, the International Medical Corps (IMC), the UN office in Walikale and to civilian authorities, Masudi said.

On 5 August, a convoy including medical corps workers and Masudi's organisation drove to Luvungi and the extent of the horrors began to unfold, as raped women began coming out of the forest.

Miel Hendrickson, regional director of the IMC, said her group briefed officials at the Walikale office of the UN Organisation for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs when they returned from their first trip to Luvungi on the night of 6 August. "We told them the area had been attacked, that there had been no fighting and no deaths, but raping and looting," she said. Meece said UN peacekeepers in the area did not learn about the rape and looting spree until 12 August from the IMC. Two UN officials in Kinshasa told the Associated Press they got first word from media reports, even though the UN's small civil affairs office in Walikale is charged with protecting civilians.

UN officials say soldiers are hampered by mountainous and rugged terrain and are sparsely deployed across a country the size of western Europe. But aid workers say there is a well-graded dirt road from the UN camp at Kibua to Luvungi, and from Walikale to Luvungi.

Major Sylvain Ikenge, a spokesman for army operations in eastern Congo, would not say why soldiers had withdrawn from the area, allowing rebels to move in, only that they "are now concentrated around Walikale to concentrate our efforts to track down the rebels".

"The FARDC [Congolese armed forces] cannot occupy each and every area to secure everyone and also track the rebels," he said, adding that Walikale territory is greater than the combined size of neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

One senior western diplomat said there was a "robust discussion" under way at the UN about why it took Monusco so long to learn about the rapes, and for the security council to be informed. Congo's army and Monusco have been unable to defeat the few thousand rebels responsible for the long conflict in eastern Congo, which is fuelled by the area's massive mineral reserves. Monusco has been heavily criticised for failing to protect local populations and accused by aid agencies of supporting Congolese army units responsible for grave atrocities. The Congolese government has called for Monusco to withdraw.