My reader in Chicago raises a question I hear frequently when speaking to various groups about attacks on non-combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s one that’s often posed whenever civlians are preyed upon by thugs:
I can’t understand why the people of the DRC don’t fight back. Sure, the soldiers are well-armed, but from what I’ve read, the “militias” are untrained or minimally trained, very small, maybe 1,000 strong, and travel in “battallions” of 10-20 men, making them significantly outnumbered by their victims. I have a hard time believing that an entire refugee camp couldn’t make homemade weapons, such as spears, to at least deter attacks. Soldiers might have second thoughts about raiding a village if they knew they would be resisted by a large number of angry people. My understanding is that flight and evasion are the only methods of self-defense employed by the people. I heard on NPR that the DRC may be the only place in the world where more fighting would actually be an improvement.
Here is my response:
You may have seen this story by now, but there was recently a report from Bangadi, a village where raiders from the Lords Resistance Army was chased away by citizen action much like you describe.
The tale is both encouraging and frightening. On the one hand, of course, we cheer on the underdogs who rose up to protect themselves against some truly vicious criminals, taking the law into their own hands in a part of the world where protection by the lawful authorities is non-existent. The flip side is that self-protection often leads to vigilantism or worse. Many of the “Mai-Mai” militias that are often identified as rebels actually began as self-protection forces but eventually morphed into criminal gangs. When there is no rule of law, violence often begets violence and nobody wins.
The Congolese army (FARDC) hasn’t been an effective peace keeping force, which is the main reason 17,000 UN troops are in the country. But one of the great mysteries of the current situation in the eastern provinces is why UN forces often seem so reluctant (or unable) to intervene when civilians are threatened by armed groups. There have been numerous reported instances when civilian massacres occurred practically within sight of UN encampments but the blue helmets failed to act. There is no question that they are stretched thin, operating in difficult terrain, etc., but their performance record is dismal nonetheless.