With Civilians Under Threat, MONUSCO Brigade Is Put to the Test

from Refugees International
Published on 26 Aug 2013 View Original

By Caelin Briggs

On Friday morning, the sound of mortar shells could be heard from Mugunga III displaced camp in eastern Congo. For the 160,000 displaced persons living in the Mugunga camps, it carried with it a new threat that comes all too soon after last year’s siege of the nearby town of Goma.

Over the past five days, fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels has pounded the hills just outside of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. This new spike in violence is the most severe the region has seen since Goma fell to M23 rebels in November of last year, from which residents are still struggling to recover. The front line now sits just ten miles outside the town center, threatening the civilian population and leading many to fear a repeat of last November’s mass displacement.

The situation on the ground is also dangerously confused. Today, Rwanda expressed outrage over the shelling of one of its towns near the Congolese border, and it is not clear who is responsible or whether the attack was intentional. The U.S. Department of State released a statement saying it had credible reports suggesting that M23 was the culprit, but with M23 seen as an ally of Rwanda, the statement has left many scratching their heads.

But this time, there is a new actor on the ground: the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) has launched an Intervention Brigade (FIB) designed to seek out and destroy threats to the civilian population. MONUSCO peacekeepers failed to prevent Goma’s seizure last year, but the commander of the new FIB said on July 31 that “Goma will never fall again as long as the FIB is on the ground.” With M23 inching towards the city once again, the commander’s statement is now being put to the test.

As always, Refugees International’s biggest concern is for the civilian population, and amid the many complexities of the operational environment, one priority is unquestionably clear: the FIB must protect the IDP camps. When Goma fell last year, the camps were ransacked multiple times by rebels and fleeing Congolese soldiers, with women and girls raped and critical supplies looted. Today the camps are even more vulnerable: tens of thousands more people are now taking shelter in the area, and their escape routes are being blocked on all sides by rebel groups. Even if the FIB is not yet fully operational or ready to defend the area militarily, MONUSCO must put troops in place to establish a visible presence and do everything possible to create a space for civilians to flee.

There is no excuse for failing to learn from the past, and as the situation today begins to resemble the leadup to Goma’s fall last November, MONUSCO and the FIB must avoid making the same mistakes. MONUSCO should urgently put in place measures to protect the IDP camps, and it should make contingency plans now to minimize the humanitarian fallout of its own military operations and those of other armed actors in the area.