In Congo, U.N. Official Sees Limits Of Diplomacy

Two boys traveling from the rebel-controlled zone in eastern Congo. i i

A Democratic Republic of Congo soldier and two boys coming back from the rebel-controlled zone with a load of wood on Dec. 10 in the Kibati region, north of Goma. Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images
Two boys traveling from the rebel-controlled zone in eastern Congo.

A Democratic Republic of Congo soldier and two boys coming back from the rebel-controlled zone with a load of wood on Dec. 10 in the Kibati region, north of Goma.

Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Humanitarian groups and United Nations officials often talk about the need to step in when governments can't or refuse to protect their own people in times of war.

One U.N. official based in a war-ravaged part of the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen the limits of what outsiders can do to fulfill these ideals, but says she is committed to trying to make things better in that country.

Hiroute Guebre Selassie lives in Goma, in eastern Congo, and runs the U.N. peacekeeping office there. In November, she led a fact-finding mission to explore how rebels managed to massacre at least 150 people — most of them young men — just a mile from a base that housed 100 U.N. peacekeepers.

"We were shocked about what happened," she says. "Imagine we are somewhere, we do our best to patrol, and then something happens in some houses not far from us."

The peacekeepers were overwhelmed, she said, evacuating aid workers during the rebel advance, led by a renegade army general who has been battling Congolese forces and their allied militias.

Guebre Selassie says the warring sides are fighting on the backs of the civilian population, and the only way to protect people is to get all sides and regional players to the negotiating table.

"Whatever strength we have, even if we are given much more troops, will not be able to change much if there is not a peace process," she says.

A U.N. panel of experts says Rwanda is supporting the Tutsi-led rebels, while Congolese officials are funneling money and arms to the other warring side, the Hutu militias. Guebre Selassie, a human rights lawyer from Ethiopia, says this is one conflict that all Africans need to help resolve.

"This mission is at the center of Africa. It's a country that borders nine countries — it's a big country," she says. "Congo needs to go back on track, not only for itself, but for the rest of Africa, too.

But what she's seen in her time in Goma and in other parts of Congo in recent years haunts her. The sexual violence is hard to comprehend, she says, and all sides use rape as a tool of war.

"The whole picture is appalling," Guebre Selassie says. "I have difficulties myself understanding why this keeps on happening. And women are not only raped once, they are often raped so many times, they endure sufferings, they lose any sense of life."

At times it may seem hopeless, but Guebre Selassie says that as head of a U.N. peacekeeping office, she can't afford to be pessimistic about Congo. Guebre Selassie grew up in Ethiopia during a time of coups, civil war and famine under the Marxist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

"I'm part of that generation of Ethiopians who had dreams for a better Ethiopia in the '70s, and so as many as of my comrades, I ended up in prison. I spent five years in prison, but I was young then, and I think I came out if it rather stringent than anything," she says.

The experience seemed to make her strong enough to stay in Congo and try to help despite the many limitations of the international presence there.

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