Congo rapes: too easy to blame the UN

There is no amount of training that can prepare you for the moment when you are in the field and a news report detailing the gang rape of nearly 200 women and four baby boys crosses your desk. Rwandan FDLR rebels and local Mai Mai militia besieged the town of Luvungi in North Kivu, along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN estimates that 154 civilians were assaulted over four days earlier this month, and says the entire town was in effect taken hostage.

This part of the DRC is no stranger to violence, having witnessed some kind of conflict since the pre-independence struggles between the Belgians and Germans. Today various armed groups, counting many foreigners in their ranks, terrorise local communities and have contributed to one of the highest concentrations of displaced persons in the world.

So it is easy to ignore the significance of the numbers in question here: 154 – the equivalent of about two double-decker busloads. And yet there has been little coverage of the event outside the humanitarian press. Here in Kinshasa the limited press corps appears to rely on reports from overseas about events on the other side of what is, admittedly, a vast country. It is impossible to get to Luvungi from Kinshasa by road; in some ways it feels as if the news also finds it easier to travel to Nairobi, Johannesburg, Paris or London before it comes here. I have to wonder if the sheer distances involved coupled with so many years of start-stop peace have somehow disengaged the people of Kinshasa from the realities of life on the other side of their country.

Similarly, I find myself wondering whose fault it was that this happened. Luvungi is less than 20 miles from a UN compound: how could this happen so near to a Monusco – the UN Stabilisation Mission – base? How could it happen when Monusco is by many measures the largest UN presence in the world? What does this failure mean for the viability of the mission, and its plan to exit the country in less than two years? It is now being reported that a UN envoy has said troops could not have prevented the attacks because they did not know it was happening, and that the UN has called an emergency session of the Security Council to discuss how to respond to the violence. It is clear that the UN has a lot to answer for – particularly to the women who have been assaulted, and indeed to the DRC and the global community that supports its work – and needs to address the systematic failures that allowed such a horrifying event to take place under their watch.

Nonetheless, it is important to resist a kneejerk reaction and focus only on the failures of the UN. Certainly, the UN mission to the DRC has been beset by serious problems ranging from peacekeepers engaged in smuggling and child prostitution to general impotence in the face of what, on paper, should be an easy opponent to overcome. The current mission is set to withdraw next year, and while this would satisfy the development community's obsession with exit strategies, the seizing of Luvungi raises serious questions about the capability of the DRC government to provide even the most basic security to its citizens, not to mention its ability to deal with myriad rebel groups.

It is important to recall that the failures of the peacekeeping mission occur within a broader historical, social and political context. This isn't some abstract outpouring of violence in a faraway land. It is the evolution of a conflict that has been ignored and allowed to fester over decades with little interest until fairly recently. It is the culmination of national and foreign policy interests that place accumulation of wealth and geostrategic partnerships over the creation of a stable government. This is the ugly face of a brutal capitalism that has for many years privileged the extraction of substantial mineral wealth over the security of the people. The UN failed, yes, but only because it operated within a context in which failure guaranteed more gain for the few at the cost of the unfortunate many.

Our final instinct should be to wonder what can be done. It is imperative that we do not succumb to the overwhelming sense of impotence that is engendered by such acts of cruelty. Even as world leaders apparently lose sight of their moral obligation to reiterate their concern and commitment to preventing the recurrence of similar events, it is critical for ordinary citizens to remain engaged with the issues – and continue to pressure governments and civil society actors to keep the security of the people of the DRC on the agenda at national and international level.

Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan graduate student at the University of Oxford, focusing on the socio-political dimensions of conflict in Africa.