Explained: The violent conflict in the DRC, in which two BSF personnel were killed

Two Border Security Force personnel who were part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), were among the 15 people killed in the violent protests in the city of Butempo on Tuesday (July 26).

Anti-UN protests had first started in the city of Goma on Monday, before intensifying the next day and spreading to Butempo with multiple UN buildings being targeted in both cities. On Wednesday, four protesters were shot dead in the town of Uvira after troops fired shots that hit an electricity cable that fell on them, Reuters reported. It is as yet unclear whether it was MONUSCO or the Congolese security forces that fired the bullets.

A UN agency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) stabilization mission flies their helicopter over the site of the UN peacekeepers’ warehouse in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, July 26, 2022. (REUTERS /Esdras Tsongo)

According to UN officials, large crowds of protesters had fired at peacekeepers, threw rocks and petrol bombs, broke into several UN bases and set their facilities on fire. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the violence and stressed that any attack on UN peacekeepers could constitute a war crime, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Tuesday.

The DRC has witnessed a decades-long conflict between state forces and rebel groups that has resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people. The UN, which has deployed peacekeepers to the country since 1999, is regularly criticized by locals for failing to protect civilians from the militias in the region.

India has contributed more personnel to UN peacekeeping missions than any other country. Since 1948, more than 2.53,000 Indians have served in 49 of 71 missions around the world.

What is the latest conflict about?

The DRC military is battling more than 100 armed militias fighting for power and territory in the eastern part of the country, and violence has escalated in recent months. Chief among them is the rebel group M23, which managed to take control of key areas and, in June, captured the town of Bunagana, located on the Ugandan border to the east.

The eastern region of the DRC holds huge reserves of valuable minerals such as gold, diamond, copper, zinc, tin, cobalt and coltan, worth an estimated $24 trillion, according to the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Rebel groups are trying to control these resources to buy weapons and recruit more fighters.

The conflict has had a severe impact on the Congolese population. In June, the DRC topped the Norwegian Refugee Council’s list of the world’s most neglected displacement crises in 2021. It previously did so in 2020 and 2017. Food insecurity is at an all-time high, with 27 million people or a third of the population going hungry. By the end of 2021, more than 5.5 million people were internally displaced, the third highest in the world. According to human rights groups, another million people have fled to other countries.

What is the M23 and how do they play a role here?

The rebel group known as M23, short for the March 23rd Movement, refers to the date of failed peace accords signed in 2009 between the government of the DRC and the rebel group known as the National Congress for the Defense of the World. People (CNDP). After claiming that the terms of the deal were not being respected by the government of the DRC, the CNDP members formed the M23 movement.

The rebel group is mainly made up of ethnic Tutsis and they claim to defend the interests of people of Rwandan descent in eastern DRC, especially against the Hutu rebels involved in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Bloomberg reported. The DRC has accused Rwanda of supporting M23 rebels but has denied these charges, claiming it is a domestic conflict.

Protesters clash with police during a protest against UN peacekeepers (MONUSCO) deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Sake, some 15 miles west of Goma, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Officials say more than 15 people have been killed and dozens injured during the demonstrations against the UN mission in the country, en route to their third day. (AP/PTI)

The militia, believed to have been defeated by joint UN-Congolese forces in 2013, resurfaced in November 2021 and has carried out a series of attacks since March this year, when they captured key areas in the region bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Citizens who do not support them are often targeted. M23 fighters have summarily executed at least 29 civilians in areas under their control in eastern DRC since mid-June 2022, Humans Rights Watch reported on July 25.

In November 2012, the militia had briefly captured the town of Goma, located on the border with Rwanda. The Congolese army, along with 1,500-strong UN troops, drove them out of the city the following month. According to a June UN report, M23 forces are planning to retake Goma in order to enforce government concessions such as amnesty for their fighters, recovery of seized assets, positions in government and integration into the Congolese army.

Bintou Keita, the head of MONUSCO, said on June 29 that the M23 poses a growing threat to civilians and peacekeepers as they behave more like a conventional army and have advanced weapons and equipment, such as precision fire on aircraft.

What is the history of the UN presence in the DRC?

The first UN peacekeeping mission arrived in the DRC in 1999 and a new mission called MONUSCO was established in 2010. The 12,400 MONUSCO troops stationed in the DRC, which cost the UN more than $1 billion a year, have gradually withdrawn from the country over the years, according to Reuters. The recent protests against MONUSCO troops are not new, as peacekeepers have long been criticized for failing to protect civilians.

UN forces were criticized in 2012 for not fighting back against the approaching M23 rebels who would temporarily take over the city. The UN had said that while it would continue to support civilians, its troops could not replace the country’s security forces, Reuters reported. This had angered France, who claimed it was “absurd” that a substantial UN force had failed to defend the city against a few hundred fighters, and called for a review of the MONUSCO mandate. Like this week, in 2012, protesters had set MONUSCO buildings on fire and destroyed UN vehicles after the fall of Goma.

The Washington Post reported that similar protests took place in 2013, 2014 and 2019, as anger grew among citizens. The recent round of protests comes after Modest Bahati, the president of the DRC Senate, told supporters in Goma on July 15 that MONUSCO should “pack its bags”.

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