THE SPINE OCTOBER 4, 2010
The New York Times story is by Jeffrey Gettleman, one of our great narrative journalists. You will cry or maybe retch at the story he tells.
This happens not to be a story of rape by U.N. “peacekeepers.” But it is a story of the blue helmets standing by while unspeakable and rapacious violence was being done to the vulnerable and undefended.
What happened in Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo after four armed thugs flipped an 80-year-old woman and raped her was that other marauding rebels ended up “gang-raping at least 200 other women.”
What happened in this remote, thatched-roof village on July 30 and continued for at least three more days has become a searing embarrassment for the United Nations mission in Congo. Despite more than 10 years of experience and billions of dollars, the peacekeeping force still seems to be failing at its most elemental task: protecting civilians.
The United Nations’ blue-helmets are considered the last line of defense in eastern Congo, given that the nation’s own army has a long history of abuses, that the police are often invisible or drunk and that the hills are teeming with rebels.
The truth is that one doesn’t know whether U.N. troops are an asset or a liability in war-torn Africa.
I’ve written at least two blogs on rape in the Congo and American policy, divided against itself. The first was on August 11, 2009; the second was on May 30. On a seven-country, eleven-day tour in central Africa, Hillary Clinton pledged this and that and everything. She pledged that the U.N. troops would be enhanced and trained and fortified by American personnel. In the end she (or Ambassador Susan Rice) voted, along with the rest of the Security Council, to withdraw 2,000 blue helmets from the threatened “sovereignty” of Congo. Maybe less U.N. troops in the area make for a safer Congo. But when you have to do such calculations you are really in trouble.
Within peacekeeping circles, Congo is becoming known as “the African equivalent of Afghanistan,” said Annika Hilding-Norberg, a director at the Peace Operations Training Institute in Virginia, because of the conflict’s enduring violence and complexity.
Luvungi, a village of about 2,000 people, is a crucible where so many of Congo’s intractable problems converged: the scramble for minerals; the fragmentation of rebel groups; the perverse incentives among armed groups to commit atrocities to bolster their negotiating strength; the poverty that keeps villages cut off and incommunicado; and the disturbing fact that in Congo’s wars, the battleground is often women’s bodies. United Nations officials call the sexual violence in Congo the worst in the world.