Blue Helmets Under Siege

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

Early last month, a group of VIPs touched down at a remote airport in the far east of the Congo.

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Incredibly, it was the entire United Nations Security Council.

The UN ambassadors have come all the way from New York to this war-torn town called Bunia to find out what’s gone so wrong with their mission here.

On their drive from the airport, the ambassadors glimpse a town of displaced people, a town that’s been shot up and looted and is littered with freshly dug graves.

The ambassadors are heading into the only guaranteed safe place in town – the UN compound. In May, this place was the front line in a fierce ethnic war.

Outside on the streets, hundreds died in fighting and ethnic cleansing. Today armed militia men still circle and cruise the streets unchallenged. On their whirlwind visit to Bunia, the Security Council promises to set things straight.

JEAN-MARIE DE LA SABIERE, FRENCH UN AMBASSADOR: The Security Council thinks and will be very much – will look very carefully at the situation of human rights, because we will do our best and we have means, there will be no impunity, no impunity.

But questions still remain about how 500 people died last time the UN promised to protect Bunia. It’s been a long and brutal war in the Congo.

In the last year, the conflict has been at its worst in the region around Bunia, sparking fears of a Rwanda-style genocide. What really happened here in May is still largely an untold story.

It’s known that around 500 people were slaughtered. Thousands more were forced to flee their homes and come here to a makeshift camp behind the UN compound. But how did this happen with a contingent of UN peacekeepers in town? Samson Mulugeta was there.

SAMSON MULUGETA, JOURNALIST, NEWSDAY: Thousands of people were clamouring right in front of the UN compound and it was a mad house and shots were coming from all over and people had no idea where it was coming from.

Samson Mulugeta writes for an American paper called ‘Newsday’. Today he’s one of many journalists living in a tent city within the UN compound. The world’s media is certainly watching Bunia now, but for a critical period in early May, he was the only one here.

SAMSON MULUGETA: If you were a few feet away from the UN compound, you were on your own. The militia could drag you and shoot you or hack you with a machete. The UN was not going to come to your rescue.

Colonel Daniel Vollot is the commander in charge of the UN peacekeepers here. He’s French, but his peacekeeping troops are Uruguayan. The slaughter in May happened under his watch.

REPORTER: So how able were you to protect civilians in Bunia?

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT, UN SECTOR COMMANDER MONUC: In this period it wasn’t possible. The only people we could protect were the people here and the people near the airport.

This story begins back in early May. Bunia’s airport was a hive of activity as a changeover took place.

The army from neighbouring Uganda was the occupying power in Bunia, but at the insistence of the UN they were leaving. Under a UN-sponsored peace process, the Ugandans were being replaced by peacekeepers.

The problem was that by early May the UN only had 400 peacekeepers on the ground, they were replacing nearly 7,000 Ugandan soldiers. This disparity worried Colonel Vollot.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT; So I take over all of the positions, some of the positions they had but where there were 200 people, I put 30 people. It was a bit different.

On 6 May, the final plane load of Ugandan troops flew out. That same day journalist Samson Mulugeta flew in. He remembers well a chilling conversation with the departing Ugandan brigadier-general.

SAMSON MULUGETA: He pointed out to me that he predicted a blood bath. He said “We are the people keeping the peace here. We are the authority. We have been pressed by the United Nations Security Council to leave as soon as possible. We’re pulling out but when we pull out, there is nobody who’s going to be protecting the people, the residents of this town.” And he said “There’s going to be a blood bath. The UN does not have adequate people on the ground to prevent that.” Then he got on that aeroplane and left.

At that point there was – I drove into town and I saw the militia of the Lendu tribe were filing into town by the thousands. They were carrying traditional weapons, bows and arrows and machetes and AK47s, also rocket-propelled grenades.

Samson’s photos are the only record of the unfolding horror of the next few days. As predicted, the Lendu militia took advantage of the power vacuum and attacked the town. Their enemies from the Hema tribe retaliated.

SAMSON MULUGETA: So at this point there was shooting, a constant shooting going on throughout the afternoon and desperate people were coming into the compound and it was clear that the Lendu militia were going from house-to-house hunting for their enemies.

In the panic, women and children were trying to crawl into the UN compound through the barbed wire, through the concertina wire and they were getting these gashes on their hands and other parts of their body. So it was very, very traumatic for me to watch.

MANDEKE:(Translation) They killed him, the dogs ate him. It discouraged us to see a policeman being eaten by dogs.

Mandeke used to be a local policeman. He now works as a moneychanger at the camp in the UN compound. He took off his uniform when local police became targets of the slaughter and he thought he too would die.

MANDEKE:(Translation) I’ve seen many of my friends die, for example, my friend JB Ikong. He was a policeman. They broke into his home and pulled him outside and asked him what his ethnic group was. He said he was a policeman, and they killed him.

For Mandeke and all the people here, the UN mission, known as MONUC, became their only safe haven at this time.

MANDEKE:(Translation) We heard the sound of heavy artillery. None of us could stay in our homes. Rockets and grenades were falling on our homes. We saw our only hope of safety lay with the MONUC.

Within days of the outbreak of violence, thousands of people were sheltering in the grounds of the UN compound. There were few peacekeepers here to protect them.

SAMSON MULUGETA: The number of them at the UN compound where thousands of civilians were taking refuge were a couple of dozen. They took full battle position inside the building. They were looking out the window, keeping their heads down and it appeared they were also very traumatised. They didn’t know what to do.

What was happening outside was truly terrifying.

Mamadouh Bah works for the UN in the capital, Kinshasa. It’s his first posting. He was on rotation in Bunia working as a public information officer when the violence broke out.

MAMADOUH BAH: I think this is the highest level of hate in the world and it is the heart of darkness and hell. Bunia was that. What I saw there I will never forget.

One day when there was a break in the fighting, Mamadouh volunteered to investigate rumours of a massacre in a nearby house.

MAMADOUH BAH: When I arrived I saw an entire family, I will never forget these images. The adults were killed – and you could see it – by bullets before their head were cut, before their body parts were dispersed, but what shocked me the most was that the babies had no trace of bullets. They have been – their throats had been cut.

People have been using, I don’t know what, perhaps hammers, to just break them and I have never seen something like that. I tried to understand, not to understand but at least to know what happened. I realised that one story is very consistent. This can only be done by a child soldier who is on the drug.

This was a dangerous time for UN staff.

Major Juan Arias is here as a Uruguayan military observer. One day in May, on this same road between the Uruguayan base and the UN compound in town, he was pulled over by armed militia men and threatened with his life.

MAJOR JUAN ARIAS, US MILITARY OBSERVER: “We are going to kill you.”

REPORTER: They said that to you?

MAJOR JUAN ARIAS: Yes. They tried to explain in English to me that, but they made like this to me.

REPORTER: Were you on your own?

MAJOR JUAN ARIAS: I understand what they trying to…

Major Arias was alone and being a military observer, unarmed. This incident paled in comparison though to the events of 9 May when the entire UN mission came close to collapse. On this day, the UN compound itself was attacked and nearly overrun.

MAJOR JUAN ARIAS: That situation it was no good, and I really was afraid. I really was thinking something terrible would happen to us.

Samson Mulugata was inside the compound that day. Thousands of people, a mixture of terrified but angry citizens demanding help, and armed militia men agitating for violence, gathered outside.

SAMSON MULUGETA: And they were also holding a coffin with the word ‘UN’ – the letters ‘UN’ carved on it and they were saying basically, you know, “You’re going to go to your grave because we don’t like you and we don’t like what you’re doing here.”

Major Arias radioed the base for help. One of those who came in a convoy of armoured personnel carriers was Captain Barbirino.

Despite a 20-year career in the Uruguayan military, this was a new experience.

CAPTAIN BARBIRINO:(Translation) It was the first time I’d found myself in real combat, a situation of real danger. When adrenaline is at its highest, it’s a time when you just act, you don’t think. Then, when events are behind you, you realise that at that moment, God was Uruguayan.

The Uruguayans were severely constrained by their mandate, which was more suited to peacetime than conflict. They’d been sent to Bunia on a Chapter 6 mandate – limiting their use of force to self-defence and even then only in certain circumstances.

CAPTAIN BARBIRINO: (Translation) The situation that we were in, caught between two warring groups, you’re in the middle, unwilling to shoot to kill, but you’re still trapped. The groups were advancing towards us. They were armed and shooting. Despite all that, our aim was not to shoot, but try to talk.

We’re not trigger happy. Apart from that, we’re bound by Chapter 6.

The crowd outside the compound was dispersed when peacekeepers fired up into the air.

MAJOR JUAN ARIAS: They arrived just in time because after we opened fire, the mass of people start to run to all the different directions. And suddenly we receive fire, shooting.

Officially, the UN maintains that peacekeepers only ever fired into the air, however Samson Mulugeta, an eyewitness, tells a different story – how the troops were forced to abandon an unsuitable mandate handed down to them from UN headquarters in New York.

SAMSON MULUGETA: There was a certain point there, there was actually an engagement between the militias and the UN soldiers – the Uruguayan solders. And when I asked the UN for casualty figures, they said “We don’t have that, we got attacked, we fired back. Whatever happened to them that’s their problem. We’re not going to go there and count bodies.”

REPORTER: Do you think it’s likely that the UN peacekeepers did kill some militias?

SAMSON MULUGETA: Absolutely.

Dateline also understands that on one other occasion peacekeepers shot at and killed militia who were attacking civilians in one of the camps.

SAMSON MULUGETA: For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of what it means to have a government. There was no wall between anarchy and yourself.

Colonel Vollot was facing his own troubles that day.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: It was a very, very bad period, 9 May. Always the same day, for me it was the baddest day in my life.

As well as nearly losing the compound, Colonel Vollot had two accidents that day.

An armoured personnel carrier he was in rolled when a sleep-deprived peacekeeper fell asleep at the wheel. Later in the day, Vollot was chopped in the back with a machete by an angry local.

REPORTER: How much control did you think that you had over the situation?

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: In this period?

REPORTER: Yeah.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: No, no control. We can’t have control here. We have control of the airport yes, but not of the city.

For the next few weeks, the violence continued and the streets of Bunia remained a no-go zone. Colonel Vollot worked frantically to negotiate a cease-fire between the two warring militia groups but he was outmanned and outgunned outside his compound.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: But at the beginning I have not a lot of combatants so the main mission was to keep the airport, to keep the airport and to keep this place, so all around – all the slaughters around made patrols but we were not enough. And to make patrol when all the people are shooting is difficult. The only means to move in the city was the armoured car and I have 12 armoured cars. We were working by day, by night.

This is what happened outside the UN compound. It’s estimated around 500 people died in the chaotic weeks of May. Some were fighters, but many were civilians.

All the Red Cross could do was wait until there was a break in the fighting to go and clear the bodies. Often they didn’t get there in time.

Makeshift hospitals received hundreds of people with horrific injuries. Somehow a handful of peacekeepers managed to protect a total of 17,000 people who fled to the two UN camps.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: So we have done our job. I suppose we have protected some population but we had 17,000 people so we made our job.

This is small consolation for the victims. Some members of this congregation see the UN peacekeepers not as heroes but as cowards.

In the grounds of Nykasanza church lies a mass grave, a tragedy for which the UN is being blamed. On 10 May the church was attacked by Lendu militia. Florence Nzabo, a novice priest, was there.

FLORENCE NZABO, NOVICE PRIEST: (Translation) A big group of fighters came in this way past the church. They started forcing this door here. But it was bolted and they couldn’t get in.

The fighters persevered.

FLORENCE NZABO: (Translation) These are bullet holes. They fired at the walls and tried to force open the doors. These are bullet holes.

Eventually they made it into the church compound.

FLORENCE NZABO: (Translation) Behind these doors here, all these rooms were full of refugees. They started to force open all the doors. They rounded up everyone here on the grass area. They asked “Which tribe are you from? Are you Hema?” The Hema were separated from the rest.

Around 20 people were then shot and hacked to death on the lawn. Two priests were also killed.

In the midst of this, Florence managed to escape. He ran the 2km to the UN compound to ask MONUC for help.

FLORENCE NZABO: (Translation) But MONUC didn’t come until 5pm and, stranger still, turned around and left. So I condemn MONUC’s attitude. I deplore it.

According to Florence, it took the peacekeepers an hour to get to the church and when they did, they left nearly immediately because they considered the Lendu militia too threatening.

FLORENCE NZABO: (Translation) Even on the Sunday, the day after the massacre, people were killed by the bridge as they were fleeing. Two mothers found to be Hema were slaughtered. The violence carried on even after MONUC arrived.

At the Security Council in New York, it was becoming clear their mission to Bunia was in deep trouble. There was speculation in the international media that a large scale genocide loomed. The UN scrambled for a solution.

In early June, a French-led multinational force touched down in Bunia. Sent here by the Security Council, their mission is to restore security. Colonel Vollot and his peacekeepers took a back seat to the new French general.

FRENCH GENERAL: (Translation) You may have observed that our weapons haven’t been idle. I’ve already begun to act with the mean of my disposal.

The multinational force has a stronger mandate than the Uruguayan peacekeepers, and they’re clearly prepared to use it. A few days ago, a patrol in this same area came across two teenage boys drunk and brandishing weapons. They were both shot dead. The special force is keen to show the locals, and media who tag along on patrols, that they’re in control.

FRENCH SOLDIER: Are you missing any family who could be in the UN camp? Are people reluctant to return? We need to encourage them to return. Now we are in the area, trying to restore as much security as possible.

OK? Have a good day. All the best.

Despite these assurances, many people are choosing not to return to their homes.

This is what they’re afraid of. 2km from the compound, Red Cross workers have come to collect the body of Lokale Twinze. Abducted from his home one night ago, he’s been strangled. Lokale has five children and worked as a nurse at the local hospital.

Lokale’s widow isn’t sure why he was killed, but thinks maybe it was about money. Seemingly random abductions are a new form of terror here. Lokale is just one of 48 people abducted this week.

Despite the presence of two international forces in town, militia members still have a free reign here.

The Hema tribe have now recaptured the town from the Lendu and their militia rule with impunity. It’s common knowledge that behind this shop front is the building they use as their private prison.

MATESO:(Translation) It’s a prison where they lock up civilians. They really beat you up and chop you with machetes, till you bones break.

Mateso knows this first hand – he’s in hospital recovering from an overnight visit to the prison.

MATESO:(Translation) On my foot, I was chopped by a machete. On my knee as well, I was chopped by a machete. And the wound is really deep. And on my back.

Mateso saw people murdered in this prison. He escaped through an unlocked door.

MATESO:(Translation) Once you go inside, they just kill you. You don’t walk out alive. I was very lucky to get out.

The French multinational force says the killings continue because they’re not fully deployed yet.

REPORTER: When you’re fully deployed, are you confident that the abductions and the murderers will cease?

MAJOR XAVIER PONS, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE: In the area of Bunia yes, because it’s our mandate.

The force has a mandate only for Bunia, it doesn’t allow them to disarm the warring militias, only to push them out of town.

Meanwhile, the strange cohabitation continues. The ruling militia, called the Union of Congolese Patriots, hold press conferences in a bar down the road from the UN compound. It’s an opportunity for them to flaunt their military hardware.

They say they’ll cooperate with the French and take their soldiers out of town, but their Secretary-General makes it clear where they see their future.

SECRETARY GENERAL: (Translation) And we would like to remind people that the Union of Congolese Patriots have their headquarters in Bunia.

On September 1, the special French force will leave Bunia and the security of the town will go back to UN peacekeepers. It won’t be Colonel Vollot and the Uruguayans though, they’re being replaced by a contingent from Bangladesh. Right now in New York, the Security Council is considering what mandate to give the Bangladeshis. Colonel Vollot says they need the same power as the French.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: We need a lot of people, a lot of them. We need, yes, strength, important strength, with troops psychologically ready to face this mission and for me they need the same chapter, Chapter 7.

It’s been a turbulent tour of duty for the Uruguayan peacekeepers, 18 of them have been evacuated after suffering nervous breakdowns. Today they’re being awarded UN medals for their service, but most are happy they’ll soon be replaced.

Colonel Vollot thinks their service should be remembered as a success against all odds.

COLONEL DANIEL VOLLOT: In Bunia we have no genocide. We have no genocide since we arrive.

For some though, their performance was not good enough.

FLORENCE NZABO: (Translation) It was up to the UN to manage the situation. They were supposed to manage the situation here. Yet the shooting never stopped.

The United Nations has struggled to deal with the crisis in Bunia. But this is just one town in a very troubled country. What about the rest of the Congo? There are many towns like Bunia that have never seen a blue helmet.

SAMSON MULUGETA: It’s like one of those things where if nobody notices it, does it happen? It has been happening all across north – eastern Congo. The only difference is that we happen to spotlight it with the world media right now.

All across north – eastern Congo, there are incidents like this happening right now. Bunia is not even the worst case of that. Bunia is just the most publicised.