OPERATION FALCON SWEEP: UN Launches Largest Ground Troop Operation in DR Congo Peacekeeping




keith harmon snow

Published July 12, revised July 17, 2005.



Hutu FDLR combatants in Nindja, DRC, July 5, 2005.

Photo courtesy of MONUC.


Nindja, Democratic Republic of Congo -- For some hill-tribe peasants in the remote reaches of the Congo’s South Kivu hills, the arrival of hundreds of UN ground troops on July 7 seemed more like an invasion than the liberation most have long since given up on. For Hutu rebels it was reason to disappear.


Peasant women cultivating the steep hill slopes with primitive tools pretended to ignore the unimaginable: the sudden appearance of heavily armed Pakistani troops, backed by Guatemalan special operations forces, marching on heavily trodden footpaths that may have seen no outsiders on them for decades. Indians in combat helicopters supported the UN mission.


Some 1000 UN troops from MONUC’s South Kivu Brigade, joined by a score of Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC), participated in “Operation Iron Fist.” Its compliment, “Operation Falcon Sweep,” which is an ongoing heli-borne operation, was launched on July fourth.


Both operations seek to infiltrate territories held by the Rwandan Hutu fighters to the north and southeast of Bukavu, in the Walungu and Kabare areas. The target areas include the vast and mysterious Kahuzi Beiga National Park.


“The Hutu rebels came here ten years ago,” says William Mukale (30), a teacher from Bukavu. “They have done terrible things and people are suffering.” William points at the long line of UN troops moving through the hills across the valley. “But no foreigners or outsiders have been in there for many years.”


It may be as much as forty years: Belgian colonizers were here in the 1960s. It is unclear when the last white people ventured back in these hills, but the Hutus from Rwanda arrived in 1994.


Both ‘Iron Fist’ and ‘Falcon Sweep’ aim to clear the area of Hutu rebels belonging to the Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda, the FDLR. Looking more like a rag-tag bunch of child soldiers and armed peasants in plastic boots than the battle-hardened terrorists they are universally described as, the FDLR are accused of committing genocide in Rwanda in 1994.


“Most of the FDLR combatants are very young,” says Sylvie van den Wildenberg, UN Public Information Officer in Bukavu. “They obviously were not involved in genocide in Rwanda. They have been manipulated and used by their leaders.”


Congo President Joseph Kabila issued a statement June 29 that the FDLR are the enemy of Congo and the FARDC would forcibly deploy against them. The MONUC goal is to displace or drive out the FDLR in what the UN describes as “domination area operations.”


During “Iron Fist” a few FDLR were sighted along remote trails as they fled. MONUC soldiers fanned out through burnt fields and searched the area but no FDLR were found. FDLR camps were located, but soldiers had fled. No shots were fired.


The Invisible Face of Terror


Over the weekend of July 10 however, some 39 civilians—most women and children--were hacked to death or burned alive in huts. Some believe this was the FDLR retaliating against locals who support the MONUC and FARDC initiatives. Some say only they were Kinyarwanda speaking Rwandans. Some say that infiltrators sent by the Kagame government in Rwanda are as likely as not the terrorists. International media—absent the area--quickly attributed the killings to Hutu FDLR.


Other areas around Walungu and Nindja have seen clashes in recent days, some including heavy weapons fire, believed to be FARDC fighting with FDLR. Some people fear that combatants will move deeper into Congo’s forests. On July 11, FDLR combatants, with wives and children, were reported leaving Nindja.


Atrocities committed in South Kivu have been mostly attributed to the FDLR. Massacres in past months have occurred at night, and notes left behind were signed the “Rastas.” The Rastas are described as a mix of between 30 and 300 FDLR, Congolese collaborators, local bandits and other disaffected ex-militia. They are generally equated with the FDLR.


“All terrorist groups have two faces,” says General Shujatt Alikahn, commander of the United Nations Observer Mission in Congo (MONUC) 10th Military Region in South Kivu, “the face that is friendly to the community, and the face of terror.” General Shujatt is personally leading his troops along a trail that hangs over a deep chasm in the mountains. His position with the FDLR is clear--get out of the area—and he will make it even clearer in the coming week.


The region has for years seethed with warlords and militias who exact taxes, goods and labor from the poorest people in the world. Local fiefdoms have seen unspeakable horrors and targeted robberies believed committed by FDLR factions in cahoots with Congolese military or civilians. Ex-Mayi-Mayi and Burundian militia have also been here.


The terror is directly linked to access to minerals. Some villages suffer less than others because combatants and warlords understand that atrocities committed against the population will bring MONUC troops who will threaten their mining and taxation networks. Some areas are tenuously “managed” by both FDLR militias and FARDC soldiers.


The UN Panel on the Illegal Exploitation of DRC’s Natural Resources cited “military commercialism” as pivotal to war in Congo. Key agents included military officers from Rwanda and Uganda, with companies from the US and Europe behind them. But the recommendations of the UN investigation were ignored; multinational and regional companies and individuals named for violations successfully lobbied to be removed from the list. No government took action to stop or deter the guns-for-minerals racketeering. Congo’s people suffer the most.


A June 2005 report by Amnesty International revealed that massive arms flows to Congo continue, weapons coming across the Great Lakes through Rwanda and Uganda, involving international backers which include the US, UK, France, Eastern Europe, Canada and Israel.


Gold departs the area for Uganda; coltan (coumbium-tantalite) used in cellphones and Sony Playstations crosses Lake Kivu by boat to Rwanda; there is also cassiterite (tin) mining here. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published a report detailing multinational AngloGold Ashanti’s role in supporting war and atrocities in Congo’s Ituri zone. On July 12, HRW issued a brief about factions being armed in North Kivu.


“We see the same situation in Ituri and the Kivus,” said MONUC’s Dutch General Cammaert on July 12. Cammaert commands all MONUC forces in the provinces of Ituri, North and South Kivu. “Groups are receiving arms, equipment and ammunition from groups, organizations, and individuals from foreign countries.”



Falcon Sweep with an Iron Fist


Soldiers of one stripe or another are everywhere. There are Guatemalan soldiers speaking only Spanish; Pakistanis speaking Urdu, and some English; Indians speaking Hindi. Congolese soldiers speak French, Lingala, and some English. Hutu rebels speak Kinyarwanda and Swahili. The impoverished villagers in the remote hills around Nindja speak Swahili, French, or the local Mashi dialect of the Bashi tribe, but the voices of the average Congolese remain mostly unheard.


 “Operation Falcon Sweep” aims to extend the security perimeter in the Walungu territory, and it is heavily focused on the dense forests around Nindja. The northern perimeter opens into the vast and wild Kahuzi Beiga National Park.


“Operation Falcon Sweep” last week dropped MONUC’s Guatemalan and Pakistani special operations forces from helicopters into unknown terrain. Some missions dropped under the dense canopy of the Kahuzi Beiga forests. FDLR camps inside the park were located.


“The Park was completely a no go zone,” says one MONUC officer. “Even the UN could not go there. It remained a mystery for about five months. The FARDC controlled the checkpoints. This is one of the richest mineral areas in South Kivu.”


Until recently, the Congolese government refused all MONUC requests for reconnaissance in the park. In late June MONUC was allowed to send sorties of Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) into the park. The southeastern corner of the park links directly to Lake Kivu and Rwanda.


On July 7, “Operation Iron Fist” deployed UN peacekeepers in vehicles and on foot, with the Indian contingent providing close air support from Russian MI-35 attack helicopters. “Operation Falcon Sweep” resumed with a large operation on July 10, and MONUC’S General Shujatt personally oversaw the burning of some remote FDLR camps on July 14.


APCs used in other MONUC operations are useless on many roads here: the roads to outposts like Nindja are rough dirt tracks with a few logs thrown over mountain streams. But flimsy bridges are the least of MONUC concerns.


Trekking Back in Time


Trekking in the mountains beyond Nindja feels like Nepal before the tourists. Women and girls haul huge loads over narrow trails like Sherpas, their backs bent with heavy loads in handwoven baskets supported by braided straps lashed around their foreheads. Coming and going to local markets, their eyes speak fear as they wait aside the trail while hundreds of UN foot soldiers pass by one-by-one. Some girls disappear into the bushes.


A grueling two hours trek out of Nindja, most MONUC soldiers ran out of water. They refilled bottles from clear mountain streams that spill over waterfalls and splash through the dense undergrowth of forested valleys where guerrillas can easily hide.


Plots ablaze with fire to clear the grass and stumps of hacked up forest blanket the stifling haze and scorching sun with smoke. Burned hillsides belie the slash-and-burn economy of locals who have no electricity, no stores, no modern amenities, no technology, and only the crudest tools.


“And no security.” Villager Robert  Mushale (27) points down the valley where he says 15 people massacred by the Rastas are buried in a mass grave. “We all want MONUC to move the FDLR. They take taxes from us twice a week. They tax us at market. We go through their barricades we pay taxes. It’s clear the FDLR and Rastas are working together.” 


Most homes here are huts of grass and bamboo and many stand in small compounds amidst groves of banana trees. Toilets are two boards over a festering hole in a rickety shed. Compounds sprout like little fortresses on small plateaus dwarfed by the abutting hills, but the quaint suggestion of a tranquil, ordinary life is shattered by the invisible terror.


Hungry people dig up riverbeds and sift through dust for minerals sold by the fractions of ounces in remote markets. Trees are felled for firewood and charcoal, and to make way for crops. Using six-foot long steel blades manually drawn and pushed by two laborers, the last pockets of unprotected forests in the area are falling plank by plank.


Operation Night Flash


Three and half hours march from Nindja the troops of the two spikes of “Operation Iron Fist” meet in a high clearing. There are two FDLR camps nearby. But for the crackle of distant fire carried like the white-naped ravens on the mountain breezes, the land is still: even the local civilians disappear in fear of the alien soldiers.


With daily killings, raping and looting from at least 2003, some areas became unbearable, especially after September 2004. Mid-March 2005 found 2500 families in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.


“Armed factions abduct groups of civilians and hold them hostage to extort cash ransoms,” MONUC’s Human Rights section reported in March. “Women and girls held are often subjected to sexual violence and younger girls may be held for months at a time in camps where they are used as domestic workers or sex slaves. Armed Rwandan Hutu groups abducted around sixty persons in January in Walungu territory. Attacks in other nearby territories also occurred.”


On 12 March 2005 Pakistani and FARDC soldiers began patrolling villages at night. With some 524 villages in the Walungu territory, MONUC’s “Operation Night Flash” couldn’t cover every village. Village defense committees were organized, with village youths patrolling through the night, banging pots and blowing whistles to alert nearby soldiers’ camps when any strangers arrived.


Some 2500 Congolese FARDC troops committing atrocities were relocated by MONUC in March and replaced with MONUC-trained integrated FARDC brigades. Incidents of terror declined with deterrence actions by MONUC, and most families filtered back to their homes.


“The new troops are better taking care of the local population,” says Pakistani Major Waqar, at a Pakistani outpost in Walungu, “and they know how to behave in a military fashion.”


While the situation near Walungu has improved, Waqar believes that the Rasta likely moved into the northern zone. “Twelve girls were recently kidnapped near Kahuzi Beiga Park,” he says.


Military and civilian MONUC staff note that it is just a matter of time before unpaid and mostly uneducated FARDC soldiers recently moved to the area begin to take exactions on the populace, with the concomitant violence, corruption and impunity that is the curse of this impoverished nation.





Congolese peasants in Nindja, DRC, July 5, 2005

Photo courtesy of MONUC


And with transnational corporations and international NGOs pouring money into Congo, there is no shortage of funds in Kinshasa from  which soldiers could be paid. Four hundred million dollars poured into Congo for elections alone in recent months.


“We are supposed to have 3000 FARDC troops,” says one MONUC staffer in Bukavu. “We trained these troops with the hopes that they would be made available to Pakistani troops for operations. When we called on them they said, ‘Oh, sorry, we have no logistics supply.’ ”



Biscuit Diplomacy


June to August is the dry season here. MONUC trucks fly over red dirt roads that have seen little rain for weeks. The red powder gets into everything and it drives the foot soldiers of misery plying the roads under cover. Women turn their overloaded backs to the road and hang their heads under dust-soaked shawls, and the pitiful peddlers of biscuits or cigarettes or little piles of food duck under coats or plastic bags.


Crowds of wide-eyed, bony children, dressed in rags, hover around grassy banks with grasping hands and desperate ideas. “BEES-QUEET, BEES-QUEET, BEES-QUEET,” they scream. Months of experience tell the children that a handful of two-penny butter biscuits may fly from a passing MONUC truck: some trucks stop and hand them out; others pitch biscuits into the crowd, inciting riots that end before they begin.


MONUC soldiers and staff are sensitive to the criticisms about MONUC throwing biscuits to children, to the news reports accusing MONUC of doing nothing, and to the Congolese people’s perceptions about MONUC largesse and inaction.


“People are really hungry around here,” says Pakistani Major Waqar. “Just look around. They love us for sharing food. We have really changed the perceptions about what we are doing and why we are here. We are trying to bring peace. Anyway, is it wrong to give biscuits to starving children?”


General Shujatt is more blunt. “The UN Security Council said ‘no forcible disarmament by MONUC’. Everything changed on May 23 when the FDLR mutilated 23 people. Pakistan has fifty years in the United Nations and we won’t let this terrorism happen to these people. We decided to take the risks upon ourselves.”


MONUC is one player amongst many. The MONUC mission is limited in mandate and troop strength, MONUC staff point out, but MONUC is tasked with fighting a bullet-less war against a complex and ever-moving target, and it is criticized for every effort at every turn.


Frank conversations with UN personnel about MONUC--and the UN more generally—reveal the following: Bureaucracy is thick and unwieldy. Conspirators lurk within and without. Decisions are deeply politicized. Critical reports and investigations are internally buried. Essential maps and information are unavailable. Slackers who should long ago have been fired are getting a free ride because the system disallows appropriate action. Rules and regulations drafted in the 1950’s have not evolved or changed with the times. Ditto for the leadership, who are seen to be stodgy, unimaginative, hopelessly entrenched with a failed system.


Multinational corporations are pulling many strings, and profiting widely. Budgets are obscene, given the absolute poverty evident in the Congo. Member states don’t pay their dues, and then their diplomats say that the United Nations is a failure, that it needs to be dismantled. Agents bought and paid for by powerful governments serve only the narrow mandates of their masters. The United States is cited as the most obvious and shameless culprit. Recent stories about Congo that have appeared in western media only reinforce the biases held by the general public.

MONUC has around 20 soldiers from western Nations (e.g. three French; four British; eight Canadians; three Irish; three Swiss; and zero from the U.S.). Soldiers come from the poorest Third World countries: they are cheap, easily manipulated and—notably—they are expendable. Indeed, there is a hierarchy of value attached to the lives of UN soldiers that varies with nationality. While soldiers suffer the hardships of malaria and rat-filled camps, risking their lives against an enemy they know little about--against the uncertainties of a duplicitous international arena and the international sharks of transnational military commercialism--many soldiers are happy for low paying work and any opportunity to rise above squalid conditions in their own countries. However, incentives to high performance are often lacking and military contingents vary in devotion and efficacy to the peacekeeping cause. Meanwhile, many MONUC staff, both civilian and military, put in twelve to fourteen hour days, at least six days a week, with no personal life and total dedication to stopping this brutal, ugly war. 


The End of the Hutu Line


UN sources are unclear how many foreign rebels have been returned from DRC to Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda through the MONUC Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Reinsertion (DDRRR) program in Bukavu: estimates vary between 12,000 and 4000. Most rebels returned in the early stages of the program, but returnees reduced to a trickle after 2003.


The FDLR foot soldiers are in a tight position. Amongst them are battle-hardened Hutus accused of participating in genocide against hundreds of thousands of Tutsis killed in 1994.


But the Rwandan military led by Paul Kagame has persecuted Hutus and Tutsis both inside and outside of Rwanda. At least thousands of Hutu refugees and returnees to Rwanda have been killed: UN High Commission for Refugees investigator Robert Gersony in September 1994 produced the first report about Rwandan Tutsi forces committing massive atrocities against Hutus. The UN in New York buried the report.


Hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugeeswere hunted down and murdered by Rwandan and Ugandan militaries who invaded Congo (Zaire) in 1996 in what the Congolese know as the “War of Liberation.” New York Times journalist Howard French reported the “counter-genocide” against Hutus as early as 1997: at least 80% were women and children, and 50% were believed to be under 14 years old.


Hutus from Rwanda who survived the RPF onslaught later fought for Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko, but Rwanda and Uganda, with US-support, crushed all resistance and overthrew Mobutu. Hutu FDLR in Congo fought to defend President Laurent Kabila against the second Rwanda/Uganda/US invasion, the war that began in 1998 and that the Congolese know as the “First War of Aggression”. Many of the FDLR now in the Kivus are believed to have arrived from Kinshasa as recent as 2003.


In April, 2005, thousands of Hutus fled Rwanda to Burundi after the Tutsi organized “Gacaca” village genocide courts began operating, unjustly they said. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda is widely criticized for doling out “Victor’s Justice” that favors the Tutsi RPF military.


The International Forum for Truth and Justice in the Great Lakes Region of Africa recently filed a lawsuit in a Spanish court, based on years of research, against Paul Kagame and other Rwandan and Ugandan military leaders. The Forum counts seven million dead in the conflicts that all stem from the Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invasion of Rwanda from Uganda in October 1990.


“Rwanda will never be interested in these people going back,” a high level MONUC source said. “The moment these FDLR go back to Rwanda the international mining companies will take over the mining areas that today benefit Rwanda. Rwanda is working with the FDLR and Congolese are definitely involved or these people wouldn’t be able to do what they are doing.”


Internal squabbles have repeatedly divided the FDLR over the decade since the first FDLR arrived from Rwanda. Late June 2005 saw the most recent split, where a local FDLR nobody named Amani declared himself the leader of the FDLR and guide for their return to Rwanda.


Colonel Joseph Hagirimana, an important local FDLR leader, rejected the declaration of Amani. Some FDLR interviewed by MONUC’s DDRRR team appear confused and frightened, uncertain who to trust or where to turn for help. DDRRR personnel face their own challenges here. “We have seen many FDLR declarations” said UN General Cammaert. “We want to see action.”


Some believe the FDLR’s Amani made a deal with the Congolese government, that he will be given a military command and a villa in Rwanda in exchange for removing the FDLR—the main obstacle to the vast mineral reserves of South Kivu.


“Many members rejected the FDLR leadership and broke up with it in 2004,” says Jean-Marie Higiro, past President of the unarmed political wing of the FDLR. “That FDLR leadership recently split again, into factions led by Lt. Colonel Christophe Hakizabera and Dr. Ignace Murwanashyaka, who both live in Europe.”


In September 2004 exiled and disaffected Rwandans who rejected the FDLR position created a new organization, Urunana, with an army, Imbonera, dedicated to “overthrowing the fascist dictatorship of Paul Kagame in Rwanda.” With bases inside and out of Rwanda, Imbonera will intervene in the DRC “if Rwandan refugees are hunted down as animals by General Paul Kagame’s forces.”


In our view there is no reason to our being in DRC,” Higiro states. “It is not our country. If we are fighting for the liberation of our country, then our forces must fight inside Rwanda. MONUC is working as required by the UN. We hope it will conduct operations without bloodshed.”




Alphonse, an FDLR Child Soldier in Nindja, July 5, 2005.

Photo courtesy of MONUC.


Congolese Air Force General John Numbe is adamant that Rwanda uses the FDLR to justify meddling in Congo. “We are finishing these FDLR before the Congolese elections [November]. It is Kagame who is the principle reason for genocide. Rwandan sources have told us that Kagame has a plan to destabilize the elections in Congo. We must remove the FDLR because they are the reason Kagame is always invading Congo.”


“The UN still hopes that every means of peaceful resolution can be used to deal with the FDLR,” says MONUC’s Sylvie van den Wildenberg. “It is the hardliners, the Hutus most probably involved in genocide that are blocking the process. Rwanda has said that there will be an amnesty for people who were under fourteen years old in 1994. We think that every human being should have a choice.”


Alphonse is an FDLR soldier. He watched listlessly as “Operation Iron Fist” unfolded in Nindja. “I don’t want to go back to Rwanda because the problem I have is still there. Kagame killed my parents at Ryabega [northern Rwanda] in 1990. We cannot trust Kagame. He will kill us all.”


Alphonse is wearing a tattered Patagonia brand jacket made in America. Alphonse insists he is twenty years old, but, clearly, he is no older than sixteen. His gun is almost as big as he is, but there is no question that he knows how to use it.


“Instead of going home to be killed by Kagame, I accept to be killed by MONUC or FARDC,” he says. Alphonse has the bravado of a cornered teenage boy; behind this front is only fear.


Like Alphonse, many FDLR are child soldiers hardly old enough to recall the details of their flight from Rwanda. Most know nothing of the complexity of the cause they fight for. Many FDLR were born in Congo; some are held hostage here.


Alphonse wants only to go home. But to most of the world, Alphonse is no longer a human being, he is a Hutu, and there is no home on earth where he will be welcome.