Should the United Nations Wage War to Keep Peace?

Last year the UN adopted Resolution 2098, allowing its troops to attack armed groups in Congo and leading to the defeat of the vicious M23 militia. The Security Council has voted to renew the resolution, but the battle for Africa's heartland is far from over.

If volcanologists invent an instrument that can measure the interplay of beauty and menace, Nyiragongo, on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the province of North Kivu, will send its needle into spasms. Twenty thousand years after it formed, Nyiragongo is still terribly Pleistocene in appearance: Its cone curves gently through montane forest and then thrusts two miles into the sky, where its rim is only occasionally visible through the wooly mists above Goma, the city it watches over and periodically destroys. The crater's emissions give the mists green, amber, and crimson tones. The people who once lived around the volcano believed the souls of evildoers were cast into the crater. When the souls fought, the Earth shook.

When Nyiragongo erupted in 1894, soon after those people had found themselves working as slaves for the Belgian King Leopold II, they took it as a sign that the arrival of Europeans into the African interior didn't bode well. (Leopold's soul would soon enough find its way into the crater, they imagined.) When it erupted in 1977, during the reign of the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, lava exploded from the mountain's sides and raced at 60 miles an hour—still a world record for molten rock—toward Goma. Mobutu was ousted by a rebel leader who was himself assassinated in 2001, and the next year Nyiragongo erupted again, this time sending a river of lava a third of a mile wide through the city. Underground magma veins beneath the streets ruptured, sending up fiery geysers. Homes were suddenly solid black mausoleums. "It looked as if a ten-lane highway had been dropped down the mountain's flanks, right across the city," National Geographic observed.

All that ready-made death comes courtesy of a rare feature, a liquid lava lake inside the mountain. The lake rises and recedes, but it never goes away. After outbursts, its lava cools into mounds of bubbly pumice. Goma's wood-slatted and metal-sheeted shantytowns, its crumbling office blocks, its rambunctious storefronts and mock-tropical hotels are built on and out of the pumice. Its million residents walk and work and die on it. The pumice is especially vivid in the Mugunga refugee camp, on Goma's northwestern edge, where its chalky black is brought out by the white United Nations tarpaulins that stretch over the tents and lean-tos, and by the white eyes, many bloodshot and yellowed with infection, of the people who live in them.

On a morning in October, after one of Congo's inundant rain showers, a delegation of UN ambassadors and envoys from the Security Council rolled up a black hill in a convoy of trucks and buses into the camp as dozens and then hundreds of those eyes gathered to watch. Earlier in the day the delegation had stood on a hilltop overlooking Goma while a UN peacekeeping general briefed them on the state of the "conflict," as the litany of insurgencies, skirmishes, massacres, systematized rapes, and refugee crises that make up the central theme of life in eastern Congo is usually called. Now, at Mugunga, created to accommodate refugees who fled over the border during the Rwandan civil war, the delegation was to encounter some of the human costs of the conflict.

A young French camp director wearing warning-orange nail polish and a white UN smock led a group of ambassadors into a one-room wooden building. Inside, women had been gathered. They were all victims of sexual violence. When the women were told that the foreign visitors had arrived, they shook their heads and wailed. The ambassadors came in anyway. The women were asked to speak about their lives.

"There's not enough to eat in this camp. Our children are starving," one woman said in Kiswahili as a man translated. "White people come here, but it doesn't get any better. The last time white people visited, a few days later the camp was bombed." The others wept as she spoke.

A woman got on her knees in front of Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. "We have received so many guests. But you, we're asking you to help us. We're only asking for peace," she said, staring at Power and stretching out her arms. "We don't know the names of you people, but we know you're so powerful." Power left off taking notes, leaned forward, and met her gaze. "Every time we move out of this place, we are raped by various bandits." The woman got back in her chair and put her head in her hands.

Looking stricken, Power introduced herself. The women clapped. "The Security Council for the last two years has tried to act here to improve the situation from a humanitarian standpoint and a security standpoint too," Power said. "We understand from what you said here that it's not been enough. But we're here because we care deeply about your suffering."

When Power asked, "What would it take for you to feel safe enough to go home?" the women all tried to speak at once. But, aside from repeating salama (peace), they didn't mention the things one usually hears are needed in Congo, and which these women clearly needed very badly: food, homes, jobs, government. Instead, they were concerned with geopolitics. One by one, they execrated their neighbor Rwanda, whose government has, according to UN investigators and others, backed militias in eastern Congo. They called out presidents and warlords by name.

"We don't want Rwanda to take a single meter of our land," a woman said. Another got on her knees and pleaded for the international community to put sanctions on Rwanda. An old woman in the back called out, "Makenga and the rest of the leaders should be arrested," referring to Sultani Makenga, a Congolese warlord and one of the leaders of the M23, a rebel movement that had sacked Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, in 2012 and had since taken over much of North Kivu. The M23 was believed to be armed and controlled by Rwandan officials. It was a common fear in Mugunga and elsewhere that the group's goal was to annex land for its foreign sponsor. If this fear was exaggerated, it was also perfectly understandable: Many of Mugunga's 160,000 or so residents, and perhaps some of these women, were there because the M23, which counted among its leadership indicted war criminals, controlled their villages. (M23 stands for the Movement of March 23, the date of an armistice its leaders abrogated.)

The French director brought the meeting to an end. The women clapped as Power and the others got up to leave. Outside, I turned away from the window through which I'd been watching this scene to find a crowd of refugees gathered on a hillock behind me. They would have ventured closer, but a contemptuous crescent of UN police with riot shields and batons stood before them.

A small, old woman in an unraveling head wrap and garments that barely hung on her beckoned me over. "Build me a house like that one," she said, with a toothless smile, pointing toward the building the ambassadors were leaving. She was 70 and had been living in Mugunga for six years, she told me, ever since she'd fled fighting in her home village in Rutshuru territory, where the M23 now presided. She bunched her dress and held it up to my face. "I've been wearing this for six years." When I told her I didn't know how to build a house, she asked for money instead.

"If you give your money to these people," she said, looking at the UN officials, "we're not going to get it."

Congo has been at war or something like it for a generation. It's estimated that since 1997, when Mobutu left power, between four and six million Congolese have died in fighting or as a result of the upheaval of fighting, through disease, hunger, and other causes. If accurate, those numbers make its conflict the deadliest since World War II. The worst violence has afflicted the east, and in particular, recently, North Kivu and its sister province, South Kivu, where spillover from the civil war and genocide in Rwanda, rivalries over land and resources, ethnic clashes, and the neglect of President Joseph Kabila (the son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the rebel leader who ousted Mobutu), have combined to leave an area the size of Afghanistan bloodied, lawless, and undeveloped.

Peacekeepers and Rebels in Eastern Cong

But while the word "war," like "conflict," can apply to Congo, it doesn't explain much. Nor do the humanitarian terms "complex emergency" or "destructured conflict," which are used to describe the country. Nor do any terms, really; speaking with Congolese, you hear of violence, hunger, and poverty, mingled into sentences with corruption, incompetence, and foreign meddling, as though cause and effect have merged—as though it all emerged from the same lava lake of social collapse. The only metaphors that stick involve disease. In Mobutu's day, Congo's genius for immiserating itself was known as "the Zairean sickness." The historian Gérard Prunier called the country, with its landmass roughly equivalent to western Europe, a "huge sick blob." You hear about the "open wound at the heart of Africa."

Today armed groups are the gravest symptom. At least 25 different militias rule parts of eastern Congo, according to the UN's latest estimates, with the M23 having been only the best armed. There are also, to name a few, the Allied Democratic Forces of Congo; the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo; the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a group descended from Hutu genocidaires, which, tellingly, doesn't exist in Rwanda, only in Congo; Raia Mutomboki, which translates roughly as Outraged Citizens; and dozens of Mai Mais, informal local militias. Some exist to claim turf, some to run smuggling rackets, some to protect their communities from other militias, some for lack of a better idea. They range in size from a few dozen machete-armed village men, to, in the case of the M23 when it was at its largest, a few thousand men, women, and boys armed with machine guns, mortars, and antiaircraft cannon. The groups support themselves with illicit mining (the Kivus sit above some of the richest mineral deposits in the world), extortion, prostitution, agriculture (atop the minerals is world-class soil), and financing from supporters and investors throughout Congo and the continent.

Kivutans know all about the militias, of course, but they're also interested in ascribing macroblame for their fate—identifying Leopold and Mobutu-size culprits. Rwanda has become a given. And lately, as the woman in Mugunga suggested, another subject for their ire has come into focus: the United Nations.

That they should feel this resentment is ironic: The UN is the only thing approximating a legitimate government that many Congolese know. Peacekeeping troops first arrived half a century ago to head off a civil war, paying with their lives. The current operation—the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or MONUSCO—is the largest UN mission in the world and, at a budget of $1.5 billion a year, the costliest. Seventy of its staff have been killed. About one in four peacekeepers on Earth is deployed in Congo.

At the same time, the Congolese logic is sensible. Since the mission began, in 1999, the killing and rape and displacement have continued and the number of militias has increased, while peacekeepers have earned a reputation for cowardice. "People know [the UN] isn't here to protect them," a translator I worked with in Goma told me. "They're up to some other games."

But that may have all changed last autumn, when, to the astonishment and delight of the Congolese, UN troops risked their lives to attack the M23. Just as astonishingly, they won. In December, the group officially disarmed.

“What’s revolutionary about the move against the M23 is it was preemptive. The UN understands now that you have to be preemptive to protect civilians.”

—Jason Stearns, author and Congo expert

When I was in Goma in November 2012, as the M23 was invading, respect for the UN was at a nadir. Peacekeepers, ordered not to defend the city, had become known as les touristes. The homeless boys who hang out on roadsides jeered at their convoys. "MONUSCO eiyende!" they yelled—MONUSCO get out! But when I returned to Goma last October, after UN and Congolese troops had won a battle against the rebels, stories of peacekeepers fighting bravely had been circulating around town. Now the boys raised their thumbs in praise as the convoys passed.

The offensive against the M23 was arguably the most aggressive military action the UN had undertaken in more than 50 years, since its first foray in Congo. "This is a very significant chapter in the history of the UN," Russ Feingold, President Barack Obama's special envoy for the Great Lakes and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told me. "It has a potential use for the future that is hugely important." Alan Doss, an English diplomat who led MONUSCO from 2007 to 2010, said the offensive "crosses the Rubicon" because "while we've done these kinds of actions before, they've been reactive and short term. We haven't been sent out to defeat an armed force."

Jason Stearns, a Congo expert who has worked extensively in the Kivus and with the UN, said the problem with traditional peacekeeping in Congo is that because it is “supposed to be protecting people who are in imminent danger, it's always already too late. They've already been massacred or raped once you get there. What's revolutionary about the move against the M23 is it was preemptive. The UN understands now that you have to be preemptive to protect civilians."

The disarming of the M23 was the best news to come out of eastern Congo in a long time. It's also good news for the UN, whose purpose—as Russia invades Ukraine and wars and insurgencies rage in Syria, Libya, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa—is yet again coming into question. But the rebellion's defeat also marks the start of what may be a long and violent path to peace.

After the delegation left, I flew on a UN helicopter from Goma to South Kivu to meet Martin Kobler, the new MONUSCO chief. (With some hesitation: figuring the UN was now fair game, the M23 had taken to shooting at its aircraft.) The mission Kobler oversees is a marvel of multinational cooperation and misunderstanding, with a workforce of close to 26,000: 20,024 military personnel, 1,193 police and 560 volunteers who come from Algeria, Poland, Pakistan, Sweden, the U.S., Indonesia, Guinea, Yemen, Uruguay, China, Canada, Peru, and 44 other countries. (There is also a local staff of nearly 3,000.) They help and baffle one another, reliving and defying long-dead alliances and grudges. At the air base, I watched as an Indian logistics officer and South African pilot greeted each other with a hug, and later as a Slav and South American nearly came to blows over a flight manifest.

Congolese, known for an absurdist sense of humor born of absurd circumstances, find it endlessly amusing. On the bus from the terminal to the helicopter was a group of Egyptian troops on their way to a commendation ceremony. As the bus pulled out, on one side of it an Egyptian honor guard performed a rifle drill and chanted in Arabic, while on the other, a Congolese security guard mimicked them—half in admiration, her smirk suggested, half in jest—twirling a folding chair and saluting like Harpo Marx. On board the helicopter, a curt Russian, complete with blue-and-white striped telnyashka shirt and outdated aviator cap, packed us in. "You must change seats," he barked at an Egyptian, who stared back at him sullenly. The ghosts of Khrushchev and Nasser glared behind their eyes.

The helicopter flew along a steep crest of hills so dewy green and contoured they evoked lizard skin. In the distance was Nyiragongo, its rim enclouded, and beyond it the magnificent Virunga volcanic range, of which it is the last active member. We banked over Lake Kivu, serene but similarly dormant. (This could be attributed to the fighting, and poverty, but also to the water itself, which, thanks to Nyiragongo, contains enormous volumes of methane and carbon dioxide. Local lore tells of whole schools of fish appearing dead on the surface and of swimmers asphyxiated mid-stroke.)

I'd first spotted Martin Kobler restlessly weaving among the Security Council delegation at Mugunga. He had a jolly face, discrete, rimless glasses, and a blue blazer and eggshell slacks too pressed for Congo. When I met him at the UN base in South Kivu, after the helicopter touched down, he was wearing a more suitably wrinkled version of the same outfit and appeared to be in need of a nap. The base, which occupies a hill outside of Bukavu, South Kivu's capital, and from the air calls to mind a martially minded child's Lego design, is a tidy sprawl of cargo containers and prefabricated offices and rowed white artillery pieces, trucks, and tanks, "UN" stamped in blue on their hoods and sides. Kobler was on his way to visit a hospital in Panzi, a town to the south, and then to speak at the ceremony for the Egyptians at the base. We climbed into an idling SUV, behind Kobler's bodyguard, a pistol in a plastic carrying case on his lap. The rest of his protection detail—three trucks carrying more seriously armed North African soldiers—followed.

"We have a little bit the image of observing only," Kobler said of the UN as we drove. "Usually peacekeeping goes in, in a fragile situation, when agreement is already there, to stabilize the situation, to observe, and to keep this situation. Nothing similar here. I mean it's a war going on, ja? If there is no peace to keep, what's the role of peacekeeping?"

It's a question that has plagued the UN's efforts in Congo for a half century, and the attempt to answer it is what had brought Kobler here. The Security Council was embarrassed by the M23's success in 2012, so the following March it passed Resolution 2098. Amid the predictable bromides—"Reiterating deep concern regarding the security and humanitarian crisis in North Kivu due to ongoing destabilizing activities of the 23 March Movement (M23) and other Congolese and foreign armed groups"—2098 contains one radical provision: It called for the creation of a so-called Force Intervention Brigade of UN troops. The brigade's purpose is not peacekeeping but rather "peace enforcement." If the semantic distinction is slight, the difference on the ground is significant: Peacekeepers only protect civilians; peace enforcers can attack the belligerents who threaten civilians. It was the intervention brigade that helped Congolese troops beat the M23.

To command the brigade, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chose Carlos dos Santos Cruz, a lieutenant general who had led peacekeepers with distinction in Haiti. A short, wiry Brazilian, Santos Cruz is rarely seen around Goma out of uniform and without a 9-mm pistol strapped to his thigh. "Really, we have the determination to not let M23 repeat that situation," Santos Cruz told me, referring to the capture of Goma. I'd seen him at a hotel breakfast that morning at six, pistol on thigh. "The determination is absolute."

To ensure that 2098 was enforced and that MONUSCO was shaken up after 13 years of disappointments, Moon installed Kobler, a German diplomat who had worked in Palestine, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and had a reputation for activism. (He famously chided Rudy Giuliani when the latter visited Iraq.) He arrived in Congo in July, just as fighting with the M23 was resuming. As the UN, "we only had words in Iraq and Afghanistan," Kobler told me. "But here we have also troops." And, with the intervention brigade, "now we have teeth."

I asked Kobler how much of a difference the brigade could make against so many armed groups. Not as much as he'd like, he admitted, but "they look for us. If a militant comes and wants to defect, the door is open. And this happens, nearly every day. So imagine nobody is there. Then the civilian population, the internally displaced people, would be less protected. Those who want to defect do not have a partner to go to. There is no airstrip, there is no helicopter flying them out. [The intervention brigade] cannot solve the problem there. But it is better than not being there."

"The intervention brigade has 3,000 guys, ja?" he said. In Afghanistan "the Americans had 150,000 soldiers, and they had ten billion dollars. Every month!"

We were now in traffic in Bukavu, near the Place de l'Indépendence, where Joseph Kabila had erected a monument to peace consisting of a ring of tree-trunk-size concrete Kalashnikovs. Congo is "the largest UN mission," Kobler said, "but compared to the tasks, not so much." He looked out of the window.

"What is this here?" he asked the bodyguard. "This is a market?"

"The market," the bodyguard said.

"Can we see it?" Kobler asked, and without waiting for an answer, got out of the car. He found himself in front of a soccer-pitch-size maze of tables piled with vegetables and spices and sugarcane and fish carcasses. The air was heavy with haggling and the odor of offal. "Bonjour, je suis le chef de MONUSCO!" he announced, plunging in, shaking hands, as the North Africans ran after him. He spent a long time listening to a woman selling nuts. "She sells between 15 and 30 dollars," he told me emphatically, once we were back in the car, and, after expenses, "three to five remain at the end of the day."

Kobler said he's at constant pains to remind Congolese that the UN cannot solve their problems. "Everybody makes the UN responsible if something does not work. So my constant message is—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and also here—these are Congolese, these are regional problems. You have to solve it as Congo and region. Do not dump it on the UN. The intervention brigade here is not a magical solution. The sentence I hear most is 'You, MONUSCO, have to guarantee that'—and I don't know what. My first standard answer, very friendly, is, 'We do not guarantee anything.' "

I brought up the subject of the UN's first mission in Congo. He frowned and said, "We try to forget this experience."

When the newly formed Democratic Republic of the Congo held its first elections, in May 1960, it was the third largest country in Africa and among the most industrialized, thanks to European mining. Unlike the British and French, however, the Belgians had expended no effort preparing the colony for self-government. Two months after the elections, with the help of the Belgian army, Katanga, Congo's richest province, attempted to secede. Congolese soldiers mutinied. The mercurial new prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, turned to the United Nations and its secretary-general, the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjö


The UN to that point had an unblemished, if incipient, peacekeeping record. Its founding charter does not mention the word "peacekeeping," but chapter seven gives the Security Council the authority to determine what conflicts constitute a "threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and "to decide what measures shall be taken." It suggests mediation to start with and force to follow if necessary.

The first armed peacekeeping operation intervened in the Suez crisis in 1956. It was the UN's induction into Cold War superpower intrigue, and Hammarskjöld held his own with Washington and Moscow. A former central banker and aspiring poet, he told his friend W. H. Auden that being secretary-general was "like being a secular Pope."

In 1960, 16 new African states joined the UN, giving Africa one quarter of its membership. Hammarskjöld found himself trying to hold together a suddenly autonomous continent whose boundaries hadn't been determined by its inhabitants but rather by the retreating Europeans, who were still vying for its resources, while NATO and the Communist bloc vied for its political allegiances.

Hammarskjöld reacted to the burgeoning civil war in Congo with a speed unthinkable today. On July 14, 1960, the Security Council met and passed a resolution calling on Belgium to withdraw its troops and allowing Hammarskjöld "to take the necessary steps." Four days later 3,500 peacekeepers were in the country. This was before the UN had its fleet of unmistakable vehicles. (The U.S. and Russia, for the moment putting aside their differences, provided air transport.) Not that it would have mattered. After arriving, the UN official and historian Brian Urquhart draped a UN flag across the hood of his jeep, hoping to inspire confidence. "The UN?" a Congolese official asked him. "What tribe is that?"

At first the mission came in for widespread praise, with Washington and Moscow alike lauding Hammarskjöld's anti-colonialist stance. But before long an international incident was in the offing. When Hammarskjöld refused to hand over command of UN troops to Lumumba, the prime minister called it an "imperialist trick" and threatened to invite in the Russian military. In a rare moment of consistency, he did just that, and Soviet advisors and weapons arrived by the planeful. "If it is necessary to call on the devil to save the country," Lumumba announced, "I will do it without hesitation." As the fighting in Katanga grew more violent, UN personnel were arrested and beaten by Congolese and Belgians alike. Urquhart wrote, "our every move would be questioned, every action criticized, every failure to act castigated. The simplest and most humane measures would be misinterpreted."

"I cannot begin to tell you how complicated and maddeningly frustrating our operation out here is," Ralph Bunche, Hammarskjöld's deputy, wrote to his wife. "It is like trying to give first aid to a wounded rattlesnake."

Hammarskjöld feared Congo would spark a continental war—or another global one. The CIA, having created an Africa division only the year before, agreed. Its station chief in Congo was given a tube of poisoned toothpaste and instructions to slip it into Lumumba's bath kit. The plot failed, but in 1961 Lumumba was seized by troops under the control of U.S.-backed Mobutu Sese Seko, then tortured and killed. Hammarskjöld had sent UN personnel to try to save the prime minister, but he was blamed for the death.

The UN lost control. Member states withdrew their peacekeepers from the mission, and protests erupted in cities around the world. Nikita Khrushchev slammed his shoe on the General Assembly podium. Picketers descended on UN headquarters, where a riot broke out. Back in New York, his health ruined and nerves shattered by Congo, Bunche walked by a protestor holding a sign that read, "Kill Bunche." Twenty-three peacekeepers were killed in Katanga. When Hammarskjöld flew to meet with the province's governor to negotiate a peace, his plane crashed, and he died. Evidence that emerged later suggested an assassin was aboard.

The UN stayed in Congo until 1964, its force eventually growing to nearly 20,000. The UN troops left a unified country, but unified under Mobutu, who would go on to ruin it. In his final report on the mission, U Thant, Hammarskjöld's successor, said, "The United Nations cannot permanently protect the Congo, or any other country, from the internal tensions and disturbances created by its own organic growth toward unity and nationhood." (U Thant wasn't the only one frustrated by Congo's refusal to live up to his wishes for it. Che Guevara traveled to the country, expecting to find a socialist revolution in waiting, and left in disgust a few months later. "This is the history of a failure," his Congo Diary begins.)

What U Thant didn't mention was that Congo had almost destroyed the UN. Peacekeepers would not be sent to Africa again for 25 years. The Congo disaster, as it came to be known, opened a rift between the institution and the continent that has never entirely closed. This is especially true in Congo, where the legacy of Lumumba points up the impossibilities of international intervention in African conflicts. To the UN, as to the West, Lumumba embodied the worst aspects of independent African leadership—"violent, unstable and contagious," as a character puts it in the play Murderous Angels, by the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien, Hammarskjöld's envoy to Katanga. O'Brien saw the rivalry between the secretary-general and the prime minister as symbolic of a fundamental struggle in postcolonial Africa between the causes of peace and freedom, a freedom that always seemed to be accompanied by violence. To Africans, however, Lumumba was a hero, and long before Nelson Mandela, the archetype of anticolonial defiance.

Congo was "the epitaph to a brief and glorious period—a time when for once [the UN] could try to do what we thought fit," Urquhart wrote. "That time was now very definitely over and would not come again."

During the Cold War, peacekeepers went to Lebanon, Cyprus, Afghanistan, the Sinai, and elsewhere, but avoided Africa. Congo, then under Mobutu's repressive thumb, was relatively peaceful, even if the rest of Africa was not. In 1992, acknowledging the continent was a mire of despotism and civil war, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali introduced "robust peacekeeping." The UN had to become an enforcer of universal humanitarian values, he insisted, an advocate of victims rather than states. "A major intellectual requirement of our time is to rethink the question of sovereignty," Boutros-Ghali said. By the mid-90s, the number of peacekeeping operations had tripled, and most of the interventions went into internal, not international, conflicts. Boutros-Ghali's successor, Kofi Annan, the UN's first sub-Saharan African secretary-general, would carry this philosophy on with his doctrine of the "responsibility to protect." But when American troops were killed while supporting the hugely ambitious mission in Somalia, in 1993, Washington blamed the UN, criticizing it for poor planning.

Drained by Somalia, the next year the Security Council ignored its own evidence that a cataclysm was nearing in Rwanda. Then, as the Hutu-led Rwandan government oversaw the killing of close to a million Tutsis and members of its own ethnicity, the UN pulled troops out of the country. (The U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, Madeline Albright, whose relatives had perished in the holocaust, advocated withdrawing the UN force entirely, while France supplied and protected the Hutu genocidaires.) Supporters and critics of the UN alike—even its own officials—called this what it was: if not the worst failure of moral nerve in the institution’s history, certainly one beyond forgiving. One official remarked that the UN "had more to lose by taking action and being associated with another failure then it did by not taking action and allowing the genocide in Rwanda." In the years following, the Security Council’s dominant members kept their gaze averted as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army killed hundreds of thousands of Hutus.

The genocide had another result: It sent a large portion of the Rwandan populace, the majority of them Hutus, many genocidaires, into Congo (then Zaire). The Rwandan Patriotic Army, commanded by Paul Kagame, went after them, igniting first a cross-border war and then two wider wars that drew in not just Rwanda, but Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, Uganda, and Burundi. The continental conflagration Hammarskjöld had feared finally arrived—but now the Security Council saw no point in getting involved. "In the post-Cold War environment, there were no more geostrategic interests at play in Congo," Roger Meece, an American diplomat who later led the Congo mission, told me. "There was little appetite to commit large-scale resources."

Drained by Somalia, the Security Council ignored its own evidence that a cataclysm was nearing in Rwanda.

As the refugee camps around Goma filled, Nyiragongo erupted again. Under the nose of the UN, which was spending a million dollars a day to maintain the camps, a Hutu paramilitary reconstituted itself. It turned humanitarian supplies to profit and taxed aid workers, using the proceeds to fund guerrilla attacks in Rwanda. By 1999, when the Security Council finally ordered military observers to eastern Congo, the logic of atrocity had been imported. Wholesale slaughter was routine.

Slowly the mission expanded. The bases in Goma and Bukavu were built. Forward operating bases were set up in the countryside. There were some successes: Accords were signed, and in 2006 the UN was instrumental in organizing the first real nationwide election in Congo in 46 years. But the failures attracted more attention.

The countries that contributed troops to the mission saw to it that as little as possible was required of peacekeepers. "There were troop-contributing countries who would revert to what their capital asks them to do over what the force commander tells them do to," a Security Council diplomat told me. "There is a reluctance among the troop-contributing countries to do proactive protection of civilians."

Peacekeepers didn't prevent mass killings and rapes in the towns of Luvungi, Kiwanja, and Mijembe. While they stood by, a militia took over the town of Pinga and carried out public executions. In Ituri, the scene of horrific violence in the mid-2000s, a man was abducted from the UN compound and killed outside it. The International Crisis Group found that the UN had "proved totally incapable of fulfilling its protection mandate." Congolese agreed. They ransacked the UN base in Ituri and threatened the peacekeepers with lynching. Joseph Kabila was only nominally more accommodating, according to Meece, who said the president always regarded UN troops as a "presence that clearly represents a kind of infringement on sovereignty."

Philip Lancaster, a retired Canadian officer who served in the mission until 2008, told me, "I was embarrassed to be a military officer when I watched [peacekeepers in Congo] operate." They displayed "levels of incompetence that were just staggering. It was just heartbreaking watching the lack of response."

In 2007 Pakistani peacekeepers were found to be running a gold-smuggling network with local militias. They were arming the same people they were supposed to be combating. This came on the heels of an internal UN report that found pedophilia, prostitution, and rape by peacekeepers in Congo was "significant, widespread and ongoing." In 2009, UN troops were tasked with supporting a Congolese army contingent led by a chronically mutinous general, Bosco "the Terminator" Ntaganda, who was born in a Rwandan village in the Virunga range, near Nyiragongo, and would later command the M23 and be indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court, where he's awaiting trial. The Security Council tried to prod the mission into shape—passing six resolutions in 2008 alone—but the effects on the ground often seemed minimal.

An internal UN report found pedophilia, prostitution, and rape by peacekeepers in Congo “significant, widespread, and ongoing.”

"We were close to events and could monitor events, but in terms of a strategic force, we were spread too thin," Alan Doss, who led the mission between 2007 and 2010, said. "Let's say there was an event ten miles away. Ten miles doesn't seem like anything. But you've been on the roads there. The rains, the mud—ten miles could take you five days. You can't use aircraft. What the hell do you do? We create great expectations, but we can't meet them. And then the mission becomes discredited."

And when peacekeepers did act, they were in constant danger—from militias; from the Congolese army, which the UN had to back but which was often as despised by the population as the militias, not least because it was often made up of former militiamen; from the very people they were trying to protect; sometimes from them all.

Doss described an incident in which one of his peacekeepers was put into a coma by a mob that believed the man was working against them. They'd been convinced of this by Congolese soldiers, the same ones the peacekeeper had, just before the attack, been helping. As Doss put it, "There was a sense that no matter what we said, we were going to get hit over the head." Patrick Cammaert, a Dutch general who commanded peacekeepers in eastern Congo, told me his troops "were confused because they had to support the Congolese soldiers and protect civilians, but the Congolese soldiers many times were themselves the perpetrators against civilians."

Militias formed one after another. Some had no purpose other than to extort concessions from President Kabila and the UN in the next round of peace negotiations. "You could bring enough money from the United States or wherever, and you decide you're going to have your 'Mai Mai Verini,' " Ray Torres, the UN's head of office in North Kivu, said. "You're going to have your group of 30 soldiers, and you take over a mine, and that's it."

In 2012, the M23, the latest iteration of an insurgency that had been terrorizing eastern Congo in various forms for a decade, knocked over a hapless Congolese force and walked into Goma. The UN refused to defend the city. At the UN base, as the rebels were taking over, I found guards trying to prevent an angry crowd from crashing the gates. Inside, I asked an official what MONUSCO was supposed to be doing. "It's a big question," she said. "The chief of peacekeeping told us yesterday we cannot work with the M23 because they are criminals. I think that is the guideline."

Later, when I asked Roger Meece, the head of the mission at the time, why he chose not to protect the city, he explained that he was facing the specter of a brutal urban war. "I felt allowing that war would be a violation of my responsibilities. Massive civilian casualties were likely," he said. He conceded that "the reaction was one of enormous frustration, dismay, chagrin. This was obviously a major setback."

UN leaders in New York were humiliated by M23's success. "We were all embarrassed by the photos which everyone saw of peacekeepers sitting on their armored personnel carriers while a ragtag group of fighters entered Goma," Jack Christofides, director of the Africa 2 division of the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations, told me. A Security Council diplomat said, "We knew you couldn't expect much of a peacekeeping operation," but "we didn't think MONUSCO would just clear the room for the M23."

Everyone agreed that the Congo mission had to change. Beyond that, there were vying camps. Congo presents a singular challenge among African conflicts, because none of the Security Council's permanent members—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China—has pressing interests in the country. America and Britain have been active in Somalia because of the threat of al-Shabaab, the Islamist organization that recruits fighters from those countries. Thanks to long-standing links with American lawmakers and religious organizations, Washington is invested in South Sudan. France is tied to Mali. Neither Washington nor the European Union, nor for that matter the African Union, wanted to get involved in a major undertaking in Congo. As one diplomat put it, "Congo falls between the cracks."


The U.S., Britain, and France comprise a fairly uniform voting bloc in the Security Council, the P3. France is the "pen holder" on Congo, as it is for most of Francophone Africa, so, after the M23 took Goma, it was tasked with writing a new resolution. On the advice of Ban Ki-moon's office, French and British diplomats advocated going on the offensive against the rebels and recommended creating a special detachment to do so.

They faced three obstacles: the troop-contributing countries; Rwanda; and the American delegation. The first, led by Pakistan and India, who contribute the preponderance of peacekeepers to Congo, didn't want their soldiers engaging in a dangerous offensive. They worried they'd bear the majority of casualties. Privately they also worried that, if successful, the brigade would set a demanding new precedent. "You can't expect they'll choose to lose their lives fighting against some rebel group in Congo," a Security Council diplomat said.

The Americans presented a more subtle challenge. According to UN officials I spoke with, State Department officials in Washington signaled their support for the detachment, but the ambassador to the UN at the time, Susan Rice, was opposed. Rice, who is now the National Security Adviser, presented her opposition along technical and financial lines—the brigade would present an unprecedented logistical challenge, she argued, one the UN could not afford. It was well known, however, that Rice held out particular sympathy for Rwanda and was a friend to its president, Paul Kagame. In 2012, the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo had published reports showing that the Rwandan military armed and aided the M23, providing it with everything from special forces soldiers to intelligence to fresh recruits to medical care. The group found the insurgency's leaders took direct orders from Rwanda's military brass.

Kagame and other Rwandan officials denied the charges and assailed the UN for publishing the reports. In negotiations, the Rwandans opposed not only the creation of a special detachment, but also any reference to the M23 in Security Council documents. In January 2013, when debate over Resolution 2098 began, Rwanda became a non-permanent member of the Security Council. It could challenge every proposal, in person, every day, and did. "Their position was to deny everything happening on the ground," a Security Council diplomat told me. This and Rice's support for some of the Rwandan arguments made the process "embarrassing for all the negotiators."

Still, by February of last year, a compromise was reached with India and Pakistan: The Force Intervention Brigade, as it had come to be known, would be created, but it would be composed of troops from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi. Then, at the urging of the Secretariat, a presentation was given to the Security Council that showed highly detailed evidence of Rwanda's support for the M23. As Rwandan envoys and Rice's team looked on, photographs of cross-border supply lines were shown. The Rwandans continued to deny supporting the rebels, but Rice dropped her objections. The next month, 2098 passed.

One Security Council diplomat described it to me as the toughest negotiation he'd ever been involved in. "There was a vacuum of leadership on this issue in the international community," he said. But "what we saw was the UN take the leadership role in an effective way. That is somewhat rare for the UN."

The intervention brigade is tasked with "neutralizing armed groups," says Resolution 2098, in a "robust, highly mobile and versatile manner." It has 3,000 soldiers divided into three infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, and a special forces and reconnaissance unit. They use armored vehicles and helicopter gunships.

Its first engagement with the M23 took place in the last week of August. Peace talks had stalled, and the M23 appeared to be preparing for another assault on Goma. Intelligence suggested they planned to invade Mugunga, where they could use the threat of mass civilian death as negotiating leverage, something they had done in the past. ("They were trying to make life difficult by bringing refugees into the fight," a former UN military official told me.)

As the Congolese army skirmished with the M23 around Goma, the rebels shot rockets and mortars into the city. A woman was killed. General Santos Cruz gave the order to attack. Brigade troops opened up with 155-mm howitzers on rebel positions. Then Santos Cruz sent in attack helicopters. This was followed by a coordinated ground assault, with brigade soldiers fighting alongside Congolese. Two UN troops, both Tanzanian, were killed, and 11 were injured.

There was also a clandestine diplomatic effort. During the fighting, Kobler and Santos Cruz traveled to Kigali to try to persuade the Rwandan government not to intervene. They were persuasive, apparently: On August 30, the M23 retreated.

A year before, in November 2012, when the M23 had made its push on Goma, its commanders, most of them Congolese or Rwandan army veterans and seasoned mutineers, came armed with new weapons, a Twitter account, and a very nasty reputation. In Mugunga, I met people who'd lived under their control.

Under rain clouds, next to a group of tents, I spoke with a young woman, Sifa, who'd fled to the camp from her home village to the north. When the rebels came in, she said, they removed the county official, sending him off for "reeducation." He was never seen again. They told her and her neighbors that President Kabila was their enemy. The sentiment didn't fall on deaf ears—Kivutans had felt the wrath of government indifference their whole lives. "We should become like the M23," they were told, "love them, work with them." But this was impossible to do, Sifa said, because even as they tried to win over her and her neighbors, the rebels were robbing, raping, beating, and killing them, and conscripting village boys. "If you said anything or yelled anything, they would kill you. They would come into your home and take away your brother or son and no one could speak." They killed Sifa's husband's father.

Noela was working as a gardener when the M23 seized her village. They stripped the garden of food. Then a militiaman raped her. “My husband rejected me,” she said.

Another refugee, Noela, a short woman with teeth rotted down to the roots, breast-fed her infant son as we spoke. She was working as a gardener when the M23 seized her village, she said. They stripped the garden of food. Then a militiaman raped her. "My husband rejected me," she said. Noela walked for four days with her four children to Mugunga. She was afraid she was HIV-infected, but the camp had no testing services.

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