An M23 rebel marches toward the town of Sake, west of Goma, in November. (Phil Moore, AFP/Getty Images )
GOMA, Congo — These days, the U.N. force deployed to protect the city's population from rampant militias is not particularly popular.
Residents complain that the peacekeepers last month should have prevented Rwanda-backed M23 rebels from taking over the largest city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Some even assert that their country would be better off without the international force, known as MONUSCO, which at $1.4 billion a year is the U.N.'s most expensive peacekeeping mission, and the most controversial.
"MONUSCO is useless," Lazaro Nshakira, 42, a mechanic, grumbled just after M23 abandoned Goma. "The bandits can just come into your house and just kill you and do whatever they want and MONUSCO will do nothing.... As a Congolese, I'd rather see it leave and then we could live in peace."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last month that it was absurd that MONUSCO, formally known as the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, couldn't stop the rebels from taking over the city. And in Kisangani, Congo's third-largest city, protesters stoned MONUSCO buildings and burned the organization's vehicles after the fall of Goma.
But the Congolese army had been ordered by its commanders to retreat, and MONUSCO military spokesman Felix Basse said in an interview in Goma that it wasn't the peacekeepers' responsibility to take up a battle that Congolese forces abandoned. He said an urban battle would have caused huge numbers of casualties.
"The [Congolese army] had retreated and they didn't fight, so we are not going to take over the fight," Basse said. "Our mandate is protection of civilians. It's not fighting armed groups, unless they're threatening the population."
The rebels have since abandoned the city under intense international pressure. But the controversy over the fall of Goma has cast a shadow on a mission often criticized as ineffective.
In June, the International Crisis Group, a think tank specializing in conflict resolution, said the mission had lost its credibility and called for a review of its functions.
"Without a new approach and reengagement by the Security Council, MONUSCO risks becoming a $1.5-billion empty shell," the International Crisis Group's president, Louise Arbour, wrote in an open letter to the U.N. Security Council in June, when the mission's mandate was up for renewal. "The mission has had strikingly little success at fulfilling its primary objective to protect civilians," Arbour said, though she acknowledged some improvement.
U.N. officials this month announced a sweeping review of MONUSCO's peacekeeping mission to determine how to better assist Congo civilians.
In 2000, when the force first arrived in the capital, Kinshasa, people lined the streets and cheered. Five years later, dozens of peacekeepers were dismissed for sexually abusing Congolese teenagers.
The peacekeeping mission now numbers about 18,000 troops, mainly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uruguay, Egypt, Nepal and South Africa.
At this point, analysts say, the mission's biggest problem is logistical. The peacekeepers have few helicopters, and poor road conditions between Goma and outlying villages, where militia attacks often take place, can delay troops for hours. But critics also maintain that the force is reluctant to take swift, firm action to prevent atrocities.
"MONUSCO faces a serious shortage of well-trained and equipped peacekeepers, intelligence analysts, interpreters, helicopters and military assets such as fire support," Human Rights Watch said in a 2011 report. It said the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, widely accused of war crimes, continued to mount attacks on civilians in Congo, but MONUSCO deployed less than 5% of its force to areas where that militia operates.
"Far too often, national armies and United Nations peacekeepers have left terrified civilians to face the LRA threat on their own," the report said.
But there are many other militias too, highlighting the problem of a peacekeeping force facing myriad militias spread across a region in eastern Congo roughly the size of France.
Many do not perceive MONUSCO as neutral because of its backing for the Congolese government, which clung to office in 2011 in elections widely viewed as fraudulent. The U.N. force's support for the Congolese army, which is deeply corrupt and prone to human right abuses, has also been questioned.
If not corrected, international involvement in Congo "risks entrenching an unaccountable government and undermining its own eventual rule of law and peace-building efforts," Arbour wrote in June, calling for new local elections to be held in eastern Congo.
When M23 rebels attacked Goma, MONUSCO saved lives. It evacuated more than 200 local government officials, magistrates and activists by air. But critics say it is not aggressive enough in identifying threats and deploying troops to protect civilians.