Calm had returned to the streets of Goma on Thursday after three days of violent anti-UN demonstrations in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The regional governor banned protests in the North Kivu regional capital after gunfire echoed through the streets as demonstrators barricaded roads with burning car tires, hurled stones and petrol bombs, and looted stores in recent days.
The violence started on Monday in Goma, when several hundred people stormed and vandalized the headquarters and a supply base of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as MONUSCO.
The unrest spread to nearby towns and cities, including Butembo, where attackers fired upon UN personnel at the base there, killing three mission members.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that the forcible entry and looting of UN bases across the region “may constitute a war crime.”
The protesters, many of whom have carried signs saying “Bye bye MONUSCO” or “MONUSCO must leave now,” want UN peacekeepers out of the country.
They accuse the UN peacekeepers, who have been deployed in eastern Congo for over 20 years, of failing to protect them from deadly attacks by the myriad armed groups active in the region.
Rising death toll
The death toll from the demonstrations has now risen to 22, government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya said on Wednesday. This includes at least 16 civilians, a Congolese army officer, one peacekeeper from Morocco and two UN police officers from India.
Muyaya said a further 67 people had been injured, some seriously.
Doctors told the AFP news agency that Goma’s Ndosho Hospital was treating 36 people for gunshot wounds on Tuesday.
Questions over who shot whom
There is disagreement over the cause of the deaths and how they unfolded.
Mapendo Kusudi, a human rights activist, told DW on Monday that the UN was responsible for some of the deaths after shooting into the crowds at protests in Goma.
“Some elements of MONUSCO fired live ammunition at demonstrators,” he said.
The Reuters news agency also reported that witnesses said peacekeepers had used live rounds to quell demonstrations.
According to MONUSCO, however, the gunfire came from protesters, some of whom “violently snatched weapons” from Congolese police and fired at peacekeeping forces.
At a virtual press conference on Wednesday, the acting head of MONUSCO, Khassim Diagne, said the UN would investigate the killings of the three members of the peacekeeping mission and seek to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Diagne said the UN had seen reports of MOSUSCO troops firing at civilians but had no evidence of it.
He said the UN was calling for a joint investigation of the civilian deaths along with the Congolese government, including an examination of the bullets.
Goma-based journalist Jack Kahorha told DW that it was “not clear who exactly shot.”
“Some sources say MONUSCO contingent shot the protesters,” he said. “Other sources say the DRC police and the army shot protesters.”
Kahorha said many in Goma were outraged by the government’s plans to arrest the protest ringleaders. People in North Kivu feel the government in Kinshasa isn’t taking seriously their concerns about the deteriorating security situation in the region, he said.
Resurgence of armed rebels
Although militia violence has raged in mineral-rich eastern DR Congo for decades, the past months have seen a spike in civilian massacres, abductions, looting and burning of homes.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, 97 civilians were killed in attacks in eastern DR Congo in June alone while about 700,000 people have been displaced in the region since the beginning of 2022.
This week’s protests were organized after Senate President Modeste Bahati Lukwebo told supporters in Goma on July 15 that MONUSCO should “pack its bags” because it is unable to end the violence in eastern DR Congo despite 22 years of peacekeeping.
The demonstrations also coincide with the resurgence of M23 — an armed group that lay mostly dormant for years before resuming fighting in November.
Adding to the population’s frustration is a recent statement by a top MONUSCO official saying M23 is too well-equipped for DR Congo’s armed forces and the UN mission to defeat.
“That statement added oil to the burning fire,” said North Kivu’s military governor, Constant Ndima.
Peacekeepers in DRC since 1999
MONUSCO is one of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions, with more than 16,000 uniformed personnel currently deployed in Congo.
The United Nations has made plans to wind down in its peacekeeping force and eventually withdraw from DR Congo. It has already reduced the number of provinces it operates in from 10 to three, namely North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri province.
MONUSCO faces some serious operational challenges, said Nick Elebe, the DR Congo country manager for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, who is based in the capital, Kinshasa.
Elebe said there would need to be greater collaboration between Congolese organizations and UN authorities in order for it to be more effective.
“It’s important to deal with security situation as holistically as possible. Different actors should be involved, discussing issues from development to security to military, reparation and justice,” he said.
Elebe doesn’t believe that MONUSCO should pull out abruptly.
A withdrawal would “leave a vacuum when it comes to security framework in the region,” he said. “I don’t think they can just leave: It should be progressively, with a plan.”
East African troops
Politician Jean Baumbilia, who hails from the city of Beni in East Kivu, told DW that regional African forces should be involved in finding a solution to the Kivu conflict.
“I am among those who made a suggestion about the Uganda People’s Defence Force coming here and that they should do something,” he Baumbilia, referring to the hundreds of Ugandan soldiers who started fighting in eastern DR Congo in December 2021, alongside the military.
“When they entered, we started to see some success,” Baumbilia said. “What is needed now is to evaluate the work done so far and give them new instructions.”
A regional approach, however, would also include neighboring Rwanda, with which the DR Congo has been in constant conflict. The countries are trading blame for the poor security situation in the region, with DR Congo accusing Rwanda of backing M23, something Rwanda denies.
John Kanyunyu in Beni, Zanem Nety Zaidi in Goma and Eddy Micah Junior contributed to this article.
Edited by: Kate Hairsine