MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Here's something that's frustrated humanitarian groups and U.N. officials alike. How much can outsiders do when governments can't or refuse to protect their own people? One U.N. official based in a war-ravaged eastern Congo is considering the limits of what outsiders can do. NPR's Michele Kelemen has her story.
MICHELE KELEMEN: Hiroute Guebre Selassie lives in eastern Congo, in Goma, running the U.N. peacekeeping office in the midst of renewed fighting. 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.
Ms. HIROUTE GUEBRE SELASSIE (Head, U.N. Peacekeeping Office, Northern Kivu, Congo): We were shocked about what happened in Kiwanja. Imagine, we are somewhere - we do our best to patrol, and then something happens in some houses not far from us. But it's - the fact is it's humanly impossible to be everywhere at all times.
KELEMEN: 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, as she puts it, 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.
Ms. GUEBRE SELASSIE: Whatever strength we have, even if we are given much more troops, we will not be able to change much if there is no peace process.
KELEMEN: 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 is a human rights lawyer from Ethiopia and says this is one conflict that all Africans need to help resolve.
Ms. GUEBRE SELASSIE: This mission is at the center of Africa. It's a country that borders nine countries. It's a big country. Congo needs to go back on track, not only for itself, but for the rest of Africa, too.
KELEMEN: 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.
Ms. GUEBRE SELASSIE: The whole picture is appalling. 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.
KELEMEN: At times it can all seem hopeless, but Guebre Selassie says as head of a U.N. peacekeeping office, she can't afford to be pessimistic about Congo. She seems to be a very committed person who grew up in Ethiopia during the time of coups, civil war, and famine, and under the Marxist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Ms. GUEBRE SELASSIE: 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 of it rather stringent than anything.
KELEMEN: 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. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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