The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) held a briefing in Geneva early this morning and condemned the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Beni area of eastern Congo. It is about time. Atrocities have been ongoing since October, with little notice from humanitarian organizations. Call it Congo Fatigue, or call it lack of attention--the situation is dire.
Due to the terror inflicted on the population, basic services have been suspended. The lack of health care be catastrophic in an area plagued by malaria, typhoid, anaemia, malnutrition and diarrhea.
Those of us with emotional and friendship ties to the Congo have been waiting. We have been waiting for the outrage, or at least some western media coverage after reports of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu began to trickle out in October. Finally, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a press release about the atrocities on December 16. Internet searches for "massacres in Congo" lit up for about seventeen hours and now have gone silent. Yahoo News, the Voice of America, Bloomberg, and dozens of other media outlets dutifully quoted the grizzly HRW report, which includes accounts of crucifixions, shootings, machete attacks, rape and other forms of torture of innocent civilians in and around Beni.
This is the stock phrase. Innocent civilians. The word "innocent" grabs our attention for a nano-second and then fades into the 24-hour news cycle, which in the case of Congo seems to last only 17 hours. They may be innocent, but are they worth our attention?
UNHCR finally took notice today, and spokesperson Adrian Edwards offered a window on the humanitarian crisis.
The violence has caused spikes in displacement, both to the city and within Beni territory. In all, around 88,000 people have been displaced. People have to live in schools and churches, or with host families. Leaflets threatening new attacks are terrifying the population and triggering further movements towards larger towns and cities (namely Luna, Eringeti, Oicha, Mbau, Mavivi and Beni City).
The international community must step up and demand to know what is happening here.
Is Congo worth more analysis than the reams that were published in 2013 when the international community, with the urging of the United Nations, organized a 3,000 strong force Intervention Brigade to carry out military operations against armed groups? The brigade was credited with the defeat of the M23 rebellion. Why is there no analysis of the seeming failure of the Intervention Brigade and the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) to protect the innocent in the Beni area from the ADF?
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan led rebel group, has been operational in eastern Congo since at least 1996. HRW Senior Researcher Ida Sawyer was quoted in the report, saying the violence appeared aimed primarily at "spreading terror."
The "terror" angle gained attention in the short-lived news cycle.
The bigger question is why have MONUSCO, the Congolese army, and the International Intervention Brigade been impotent in neutralizing the ADF? This is a small rebel group compared to the massive armed forces of the M23, which surrendered in late 2013.
Voice of America offered cover to MONUSCO's seeming lack of response in its account of the massacres.
The head of MONUSCO, Martin Kobler, told VOA that about 1,200 UN peacekeepers, including Tanzanian soldiers were working alongside 8,000 Congolese (FARDC) troops. Kobler said, "there were many challenges opposing a group using guerilla tactics in difficult terrain," according to VOA.
"It is a huge area with jungles and even if the enemy is seven kilometers away, if you have to walk seven kilometers this takes one-and-a-half to two hours to reach the place. And neither the FARDC, the Congolese army, nor MONUSCO can really be everywhere," Kobler said.
This is more than a puzzling response, since MONUSCO maps of the area show clearly that UN bases are very near the conflict areas.