|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Special Representative for Democratic Republic of Congo
Amid international outrage over the rape and assault of at least 154 Congolese civilians during an attack by two armed groups in North Kivu Province in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Roger Meece, the Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo said the United Nations was reviewing how it conducted patrols in the area and how to improve communication with local communities.
Speaking via video-link to journalists at a Headquarters press briefing, Mr. Meese first gave a detailed briefing on the events that took place in several villages near Kibua, where the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has a forward-operating base.
He said that on 31 July, MONUSCO received information on movements of the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) armed group, but there had been no suggestion of an attack on the area. On 1 August, a Congolese Mai Mai group, or version thereof, was also moving into the area, presumably to establish a blockage of commercial mineral traffic. Those two groups might have coalesced. On that same day, MONUSCO was involved in North Kivu, facilitating the freeing of hostages taken in a separate, but simultaneous event.
Meanwhile, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) had moved a patrol into the area early on 2 August, he said, from the town of Mpofi. An exchange of fire between the FARDC and remnants of the armed groups ensued; however, MONUSCO had had no direct information or coordination with the Congolese army patrol; nor had there been information to suggest large-scale rape.
That same day, a MONUSCO patrol moved from Kibua to Mpofi. Commercial vehicles stopped at Kibua, informed of a roadblock, took advantage of the patrol’s presence to ensure safe passage to Mpofi. On the way back from Mpofi that same day, the patrol stopped in Livungi village, where rapes had taken place, to arrest a Mai Mai member who had attempted to steal a motorcycle. The villagers had not reported any of the events that had taken place in the preceding days. The patrol stopped next in Bunyon Umpire, where people there had stopped the patrol wanting to take possession of the arrested Mai Mai. The arrestee, however, had been retained.
MONUSCO first received reports of widespread rape on 12 August, he said, and a Joint Protection Team was sent to the area on 13 August. Various measures had been in place to protect civilians. In Kibua, weekly meetings had been held with local authorities to review the general situation, while regular patrols — called “market patrols” — were carried out to provide maximum protection to people going to and from the markets.
“Obviously, none of these activities were enough, in this case, to prevent a terrible tragedy and the events that happened,” he said.
In the aftermath, he said, MONUSCO now would understand the absence of a daily communication from a village to the Kibua base to signify a problem, and a patrol would be dispatched. Local meetings would also be held to ease the difficulty for local leaders of travelling to Kibua. A review of the general patrol activity was also being conducted. MONUSCO had been actively pursuing the FDLR and would work closely with authorities to bring any Congolese involved in the recent attacks to justice.
Taking questions, first on whether it was possible that United Nations workers knew of the events as early as 31 July but did not report them, Mr. Meece said he had found no evidence of such behaviour. If more specific information surfaced, he would be happy to pursue it. MONUSCO’s first priority was the protection of civilians. If reports of mass rapes had been received, certainly MONUSCO forces would have taken action to try to prevent such actions.
Asked if the reason the patrol had not received information about the rapes after it twice visited the village was because it lacked a means of communicating with locals, he responded that MONUSCO did indeed have the means of communication; however, there was a significant amount of “cultural baggage” associated with rapes in that area. Villagers might have feared reprisals or been ashamed of what had happened. He could only speculate as to the reasons, but such issues could be very powerful. Women could be rejected by families and communities after the fact, adding “victimization to victimization”.
Taking a question about using cell phones for daily communications, he said, “We’re looking at that.” It’s a problem for the densely forested area, as only one village in the area had cell phone connectivity. Sending someone to the area might be the only effective way to carry out daily communications. There was no standard protocol for how to approach villages. That approach depended, in part, on local leaders. The idea was to promote maximum contact with the local population.
As for how the Indian helicopter brigade was used, he said that the utility and attack helicopters were used in a wide array of activities. Helicopter patrols were not the most effective way to see what was happening in a densely forested area. They were used for moving supplies and people. Attack helicopters were used as needed with direct threats of violence. Helicopters were always a scarce resource and they were used to maximum effect possible.
Asked if MONUSCO was doing enough to protect civilians, he said “we’re always looking at how we can respond most effectively to identified threats”. MONUSCO was involved in providing security to humanitarian relief agencies and working on an operational basis to eliminate the threat to civilians by armed groups, Congolese and foreign. He was relatively new and was examining how to do things better.
As for how people were coping, he said he had asked whether there were ongoing security concerns in the villages where the rapes had occurred. Humanitarian workers had not needed or requested security patrols, but that was always under review. There was psychological trauma in the villages. He would visit Kibua tomorrow to examine conditions on the ground.
Fielding a query on how many peacekeepers were at Kibua and the size of the area, he said there were 80 military personnel in Kibua. The size of the area being covered was 300 square kilometres.
Responding to a question about whether it was in MONUSCO’s mandate to take down roadblocks or intervene with force to protect women being raped, he said if a patrol had found an illegal group operating a roadblock, the patrol would have it removed. Trying to prevent violence from being perpetrated against civilians by predatory groups was very much part of the Mission’s mandate. “We are seeking to go after them in terms of military pressure and obtain repatriation and move against them in all ways possible,” he said.
As for what the Congolese Army was doing before the attacks, he said there was no indication that the Congolese authorities had advance knowledge of the attacks. There was little to no active Congolese Army presence in the immediate period preceding the attacks. They had a presence in Mpofi and it was unlikely there would be any Congolese national police presence anywhere in that area.
Asked why, since 2005, it seemed the situation had deteriorated, he observed that the Mai Mai was not a monolithic group; each band could have a very different character. Many were a major threat to civilians. They had perpetrated horrific acts, and some had been brought to justice internationally or by Congolese authorities. In terms of the general security environment, he would not necessarily concur that things were deteriorating. Areas where he could not have travelled in the past were today more secure. The long-term answer was a functioning State and institutions, including an effectively operating justice system. Stabilization was a goal and very much a part of the Mission’s mandate.
Asked about a call from Belgium to examine a “failure” to act by MONUSCO, he said that was the first time he had heard of such a call. “We’re as interested as anyone to understand what could be done better,” he stressed, noting that the Mission would be happy to work with anyone in the area to do that.
Responding to a query about whether the attacks, perpetrated close to a mining area, were meant to intimidate the population to ensure that illegal mining could take place, he said he could not speculate on the reasoning. It was difficult to understand how people could perpetrate such acts, let alone have a commercial interest in doing them. He had little doubt that the armed groups were involved with such activities.
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