Focus on the challenge UN troops face in Ituri District

Even though the new Bangladeshi troops of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) stepped onto Bunia's dusty airport in early September with apparent breezy confidence, they were under no illusion of the difficult task ahead.

"This is going to be a challenge," Maj. Jamil Rashid, MONUC's security chief at Bunia National Airport told IRIN last Tuesday, "The airfield was attacked in May when UN forces were here. And there are still pockets of lawlessness all around the town. We're going to have to be vigilant."

That vigilance has already been tested in Bunia and in other parts of Ituri, the district in which the town is situated. Early in September, MONUC sent seven armoured personnel carriers to Bogoro, 25 km south of Bunia, after a protest against the town's high level of unemployment degenerated into massive looting. Hundreds of looters ransacked shops and trading stalls before the peacekeepers arrived.

Militias still active

More worrying than these instances of civil unrest, Ituri residents said, was the violence being perpetuated by the region's still-active small militia groups. Outright fighting between groups may have died down, but many Iturians think militia activity has simply degenerated into low-level banditry, including 'hit and run' attacks on civilians.

"You can stay on the main street here but you wander out by less than half a kilometre, they are there. They are hiding in the bush, ambushing people and dragging them off to be killed," said Lolo Bosuo, a former owner of a Bunia Internet cafe recently looted by an armed gang.

A question of strategy

MONUC officials are pondering the methods they need to adopt to stop these acts of lawlessness given their sporadic nature and the finite resources at the disposal of the UN troops. With only 4,500 of them expected to police a district with 4.2 million people, the task appears daunting.

"A lot of work must be done to synchronise [central] Bunia's peace with the rest of Ituri," Maj. Alani Nizar, chief of operations in Bunia, said. "This is the real challenge since these rebels are everywhere in the bush."

He said that MONUC's "central strategy" was to expand gradually from Bunia, securing new territory. "Eventually we will be fully stationed throughout Ituri," he said.

Using force

Despite the challenges ahead in achieving this objective, Nizar said that MONUC was better equipped to do the job than sceptics might suggest.

"We have two UN MI-25 attack helicopters to support the ground force," he said. "They are now fully operational which underlines the fact that we are now working under a Chapter 7 mandate."

He added, "If we see any trouble anywhere on the ground or we hear of any militia about to launch an attack, we can shoot them down from the air."

Another five helicopters are available for troop and civilian medevac missions.

Some MONUC officials point out that one of the decisions UN peacekeepers may have to make is to choose when to act tough, "to show they mean business". A MONUC demobilisation officer based in North Kivu, William Deng Deng, told IRIN in Bunia on 9 September that if UN soldiers flexed their muscles to show that they're were under Chapter 7 the tactic would work.

"I'm convinced the successes we've had in Beni and Butembo are down to our South African contingent," he said. "Those guys are tough on the armed groups. They're not afraid to venture right out into the bush to track down those militias and force them to disarm or else."

Yet not all MONUC officials are so confident that their access to military firepower would make the mission easy.

"You can have a Chapter 7 mandate but actually using it in a Chapter 7 situation is a difficult business," Philippe de Bard, the chief officer of political affairs for the MONUC operation, said. "As a peacekeeper, the decision to whether or not to kill is always a difficult one. Likewise, having attack helicopters is one thing; using them effectively in a place like Ituri is something else."

The language barrier

Top of the list of concerns for Iturians seems not to be whether or not MONUC has the hardware to provide security; rather, it is whether the soldiers can communicate with the population in the pursuit of their mission. For example, the public worries that the 4,500 Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani and Uruguayan peacekeepers will not be able to communicate with them in French, Swahili or Lingala.

"I have no English. They have no French. So what happens if I try and tell them my brother is being killed in the road?" Lolo said.

Yet officials in charge of the MONUC mission in Ituri downplayed this problem. The overall coordinator of the mission in Ituri, Usman Dabo, said MONUC had translators in the field as well as a special French-speaking unit.

"Part of our set-up was to equip all of the military going anywhere in Ituri with radios to MONUC's central offices in Bunia," he said. "If a soldier is somewhere far from base and someone comes up to him but he doesn't understand, he simply radios the office and hands over the microphone."

He said the first UN peacekeeping troops to serve in the Congo never spoke French. "That was in the 1960s. None of them spoke French - they were mostly English-speaking Ghanaians. But they were a success".

Chances of success

Whether or not MONUC will success, only time will tell. But there are encouraging signs that at least some of Ituri's former combatants are now willing to renounce violence and return to civilian life.

"Everyday a lot of people come to us voluntarily to surrender their guns," Nizar told IRIN in Bunia "We have a big fire everyday to destroy all the weapons we have recovered".

Meanwhile, Ituri's peacekeepers say they are confident they are up to the job. "We're very happy to be in Ituri," Mahmud Hussain, operations chief for the Bangladeshi contingent, said. "I'm hoping that when we're finished, things will be very different around here."