CAFOD calls for more UN troops to end Africa's 'forgotten tragedy'

 As the United Nations prepares to discuss the future of its peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), CAFOD urges the international community to give the conflict-torn country the attention and resources it desperately needs. Tomorrow, the UN Security Council will meet to discuss the future of MONUC, the DRC peacekeeping force, just under two months after nine peacekeepers were killed in a rebel ambush. CAFOD believes that peace will not be restored in DRC unless the UN ensures that MONUC has sufficient resources and manpower to cover the country. The conflict continued insecurity and displacement claims an estimated one thousand lives a day. Many areas are not covered by either the UN peacekeepers, or national forces, leaving civilians vulnerable to attack by rebel uncontrolled militia forces. Arms trafficking continues across many places along the inadequately policed borders, adding to an estimated 800,000 guns in circulation within DRC. The UN currently has a peacekeeping force of 16,700 soldiers covering a country the size of Western Europe. By contrast Liberia, a fraction of the size of DRC, has 15,000 troops. Kosovo, two years after its conflict, had more than 36,000 international troops in a province that could fit into DRC more than 00 times. and the comparatively tiny island of Cyprus has a force of just less than 1000. CAFOD Conflict Policy Analyst Amelia Bookstein who has just returned from DRC DRC, said: "Instances of violence against the civilian population are rising despite the 2002 peace deal, especially in Ituri and North and South Kivu. I spoke to groups of girls who had been abducted and repeatedly raped. In recent weeks I interviewed child soldiers who had been forced into the fight and had only just recently put down their arms. Peace is an abstract concept for millions of people in DRC. :In many areas the MONUC forces are either absent, ineffective or inconsistent and so failing in their duty to protect civilian lives. Corruption within the national army means that soldiers are unpaid and so survive through looting villages. There is absolutely no one to protect the people. Civil society groups, like our local teams working on justice and peace issues, struggle to defend human rights and counteract the militias and extremists, at great personal risk. However, without basic protection from the UN or the national army, this is a losing battle. "The appalling loss of life in DRC is a scandal which the world chooses to ignore. How many more millions of lives have to be lost before the international community finds the political will to bring peace to the country?" It is estimated that the civil war in DRC has claimed 3.8 million lives since 1996 - around fourteen times the death toll of the Asia tsunami disaster - the worst death toll of any conflict since World War II. Over three million people have been forced from their homes by the fighting. Countless hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, tens of thousands of children abducted and forced to fight and the country's health and education system has been destroyed. Jeanne, 19, was abducted by militia forces on 28 February this year and released a week later after her community paid an $800 ransom - a huge amount of money for people living in eastern DRC. It was not the first time that she had been taken. She told CAFOD Catholic trauma centre staff: "We were badly beaten and raped. Four men raped me during that time. An old woman who had been taken was sent back to the village to collect the ransom of $800 that they were demanding for our release. The money arrived in three lots as it was difficult to collect together such a sum. "We ate just three times during the seven days we were taken. They asked us whether we wanted to live or die, we replied that it was up to them as we did not have a choice. If they had decided to kill us, as they have done with so many others, there would have been no-one to stop them." MONUC soldiers were accused at the end of last year of the gang rape of local women. It is crucial for their standing in the local community that those accused are brought to justice and measures are taken to stop such abuses happening in the future. The new resolution for MONUC must emphasize the need to take a robust approach to the disarmament of the Interhamwe and other militias operating in eastern DRC -- key to stopping violence and attacks against women. At the same time, MONUC has the clear responsibility to act to the highest standards of international law to distinguish between civilians and militias in their operations, and to ensure a full stop to any sexual abuse by the peacekeepers themselves. The Congolese peace agreement called for an integrated national army - not an easy task in a country that, only three years ago, was host to six foreign armies and more than five rebel groups. This integration is just beginning but is of vital importance. The formation of a national army - and a collaborative approach between the UN and this army - is one of the most important steps in order to stabilise the country and set the stage for reconstruction and elections in the near future. Ms Bookstein said: "The international community must remain engaged and vigilant throughout this unstable but important time in DRC's emergence from war. Peace cannot take root if attacks against civilians are allowed to continue on this scale." CAFOD is working in DRC and throughout the Great Lakes region with programmes working with local partners and the Catholic Church structures in youth support, trauma counselling, agricultural projects, and peace and reconciliation. It also responds immediately to large-scale displacement and humanitarian need with a DFID supported Rapid Reaction Fund, such as its current work in Ituri with 16,000 people displaced by the recent fighting.

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