Protests that began last week in and around Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have continued into this week, claiming several lives. Civilians on the ground, frustrated and frightened by yet another spike in insecurity, have channeled their anger toward the United Nations’ peacekeepers in their midst, demanding that they leave since they are unable to protect civilians.
Just over a month ago, the Congolese defense forces launched a campaign against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one of the misleadingly-named armed groups that have terrorized eastern Congo for years. The campaign was not coordinated with UN forces on the ground, one of many examples of the dysfunctional relationship between the state and the long-serving UN presence in the country. The ADF, in turn, has stepped up its attacks on civilians in response to increased military pressure, brutally murdering over 100 people and displacing thousands more. All of this is occurring in the same part of the DRC that has been coping with an Ebola outbreak for over a year, and where hundreds of attacks on those trying to fight the virus have added to the already daunting challenge of responding to the outbreak.
From a distance, it can be perplexing to read that international peacekeepers sent to provide stability are the focus of local wrath, or that health workers trying to stop the spread of Ebola are vilified and attacked. Indeed, UN Under-Secretary General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix urged people to “make no mistake about who the enemies are” during his visit to the troubled region. But on the ground, these populations have experienced decades of insecurity, dozens of armed groups with murky agendas, failures and in some instances a total absence of governance. They see enemies everywhere, and most of the time it is impossible for citizens to hold them to account.
The mistrust manifest in the reports out of Beni is tragic and self-defeating, but not incomprehensible. Whether the protests and attacks are orchestrated or encouraged or not, rage and suspicion are understandable reactions to life in eastern Congo. Rejecting well-intentioned interventions seems like a very human attempt to assert some element of control over a situation that has long been chaotic, to reject the external forces that have for generations brought suffering to the Congolese people, and to find an immediate and tangible scapegoat to blame for years of suffering.