A Pacifist at War An Unlikely Leader's Success in Congo

In the embattled region of eastern Congo, the United Nations is deploying a real combat brigade for the first time. It's being led by a German pacifist who believes peacekeeping sometimes requires the use of military force. His approach appears to be working.

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

On a Monday morning in late October, Martin Kobler is sitting in an armored personnel carrier, bumping along National Road No. 2 from Kiwanja to Rutshuru, which is more of a path than a main road. It leads through the eastern part of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe. In recent years, more people have been murdered, tortured and raped in Congo than anywhere else in the world. And now Kobler, a German, has come here to bring about peace by armed force.

He opens the vehicle's hatch and pushes his upper body through the opening to behold a breathtaking landscape of volcanoes, rain forest and fertile fields. "What a beautiful country this is," he says, "or rather, could be."

He waves to children by the roadside and gazes with satisfaction at the first refugees returning to their abandoned villages, carrying mattresses and water cans on their backs.

For the first time in one-and-a-half years, it is possible to walk along this road without the fear of being attacked, raped or killed. That's how long the M23, a militia consisting primarily of members of the Tutsi ethnic group and supported with arms and money from neighboring Rwanda, controlled the region. But now the Congolese army has managed to drive the M23 out of the region in less than a week. It's a success for Congo -- and for Kobler.

Since August, he has been leading the world's largest and most expensive United Nations peace mission, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). Until recently, it was also the UN's least successful mission. Since it was created 14 years ago, it has mainly been known for having peacekeepers in blue helmets who played volleyball with mass murderers or locked the gates of their military camps when persecuted civilians sought protection.

Kobler's job is to transform MONUSCO into an effective force. If he succeeds, it will not only change Congo, but the United Nations as a whole.

The UN's First True Combat Force

A year ago, 2,000 M23 rebel fighters managed to capture the major Congolese city of Goma without UN peacekeepers putting up a fight. As a reaction to this humiliating incident, the UN Security Council became more combative and, in March, passed Resolution 2098. Under the resolution, MONUSCO was provided with a 3,000-man intervention brigade, in addition to its 17,000 regular peacekeepers. It was the organization's first true combat force.

Some other UN peacekeepers are permitted to engage in combat operations, but they almost never do. And none of them has such a robust mandate or is as well armed as the new intervention brigade. MONUSCO now has combat helicopters, tanks and heavy artillery, and reconnaissance drones will soon be added to its arsenal.

Though Resolution 2098 is primarily a symbolic milestone on the path to a UN army, this doesn't make it any less significant. That's because the international community has recognized that peacekeeping troops alone are often insufficient, since it is difficult to keep the peace when there is none to be kept. Instead, it is sometimes necessary to forcibly bring about peace by military means. But in the end, everything depends on how Resolution 2098 is applied, and whether the people using it really want to take risks to protect civilians.

Kobler, a 60-year-old career diplomat who has represented Germany in the Palestinian territories, Cairo, Baghdad and New Delhi, was appointed to head the mission. A pacifist and a Green Party supporter, he was former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's chief of staff when the German military, the Bundeswehr, entered its first two wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Since then, Kobler has been convinced that it is sometimes necessary to fight for a more peaceful world. "Traditional peacekeeping, where you're simply there and you react more than you act, isn't working anymore," he says.

Courage and Pride

Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a Brazilian general, was appointed commander of the troops. He had fought against street gangs in Haiti while on a UN mission there from 2007 to 2009, and he came with a tough reputation. Cruz was joined by James Mwakibolwa, a Tanzanian general, who now leads the intervention brigade mainly made up of Tanzanian, South African and Malawi soldiers.

Kobler and Cruz began their service in early August. Two weeks later, the German gave the order to deploy combat helicopters for the first time in his life. MONUSCO bombed M23 positions near Goma, from which the rebels had launched rockets and mortars against the city of a million people on the shore of Lake Kivu. At the same time, the Congolese army attacked the rebels on the ground. Hundreds died on both sides, including two soldiers from the intervention brigade. Then there was calm for more than two months, during which a peace treaty was negotiated, though neither side was willing to make any real compromises.

Then the army attacked the M23 positions again on Oct. 25. Kobler was furious, fearing that the fighting could thwart a political agreement. But the army achieved one victory after the next, and Kobler had no choice but to send his intervention brigade to the front to protect the residents of Kiwanja. The peacekeepers were now fighting for a second time.

The same morning, Kobler attended the funeral of a fallen peacekeeper from Tanzania and said: "I thank all of you for your courage." Despite the bloody fighting, he added, it was time to be proud "that we have protected the population." Courage and pride: In recent weeks, Kobler has often used these two words, which are part of a new vocabulary for MONUSCO.

A Balancing Act

The armored vehicle containing the UN delegation stops in the middle of a refugee camp. Outside there are makeshift huts made of twigs and leaves, and inside the vehicle Kobler presses his cellphone to his ear. He has just received a call from General Cruz, who tells him that the rebels have left Mount Hehu, and that the Congolese army now wants to secure the weapons they've left behind. But the mountain is on the border with Rwanda, and in recent weeks the country has repeatedly claimed that shots were being fired into its territory from Congo -- and has threatened to fire back. Kobler must now prevent Rwanda from attacking the Congolese troops.

"What do we have to decide?" Kobler shouts into the phone. "Okay, then I'll tell the Rwandans, and you go ahead." He dials a few numbers, but no one answers. "Then I'll just call the defense minister. What's his name again?" He searches in the address book on his phone and finds the name: "Kabarebe." When he calls the number, someone does answer, but it's only Rwandan Defense Minister James Kabarebe's assistant.

There are beads of sweat on Kobler's forehead. It's oppressively hot in the armored vehicle. Since he can't reach Kabarebe, he writes him a text message: "M23 has left Mount Hehu. We would like to secure the weapons. It's on the border." The Rwandan defense minister calls back soon afterwards. "The army won't shoot at you if we're there," Kobler promises. The crisis has been defused. The trip continues.

The incident is an example of the balancing act Kobler must perform. He knows that M23 gets funding from Rwanda, and that it also receives orders from precisely the man with whom he just spoke on the phone: James Kabarebe.

'MONUSCO Will Protect You'

A little later, the UN convoy stops in the town of Rutshuru. When Kobler gets out of the vehicle, he is joined by a young man in a leather jacket who has been sitting quietly next to him for most of the trip. He is Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu Province.

The governor's presence is intended to demonstrate that the government is returning to the area, and that police officers, judges and civil servants will also return. But the governor is also there so that people don't direct their expectations solely at MONUSCO, because the blue helmets lack the resources to do all the things that are now needed. An entire region needs to be rebuilt, and Kobler has neither the money nor the mandate to do so. This is the dilemma UN peacekeeping missions face: They are called into action when a country is weak, and yet they are also dependent on the state becoming strong enough to make their mission a success.

Congo, however, is one of the world's weakest nations. The central government has lost control over large parts of the country. The fact that dozens of militias are wreaking havoc in the eastern part of the country is not as much a cause as it is a symptom of this weakness.

Hundreds of people have gathered on the town square, and some have even climbed up into the trees. The governor, who speaks first, promises that the government will be there for the people again soon. Then it's Kobler's turn. He has an orange dot on his forehead, put there by an Indian peacekeeper in a Hindu shrine at the MONUSCO base. Kobler did not wipe it away as the others did, saying quietly that having many patron deities couldn't be a bad thing.

"This is a day of liberation," he tells the people of Rutshuru. "I promise you one thing: MONUSCO is with you. MONUSCO will protect you." These are big words, especially in light of the peacekeepers' miserable image in the region. During one of his first visits to Goma, someone threw a rock at the windshield of Kobler's car.


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peskyvera 11/14/2013
1. optional
Ghandi-style pacifism doesn't work in today's violent world. Always turning the other cheek takes us exactly nowhere.
redroseandy 11/16/2013
2. Water Wells
I have had success in preventing wars by digging water wells in Third World countries, they are cheap, quadruple food production, and bring birth rates down to Western levels in three months (The Buxton Gap). The money that can be made by them is better than what they get for fighting. There are 41 reasons for a water well not producing water, all can be got over by putting a time bomb at the bottom of each well dug. Live long and prosper!
steve 11/16/2013
3. Military force is not 'peace keeping
Political control requires military force. Democracy and political autonomy are not advanced by military violence. Dictatorship can only exist with military force.
danm 11/17/2013
4. optional
Eastern Congo will remain a bleeding wound until the area gains some sort of strategic importance to the handful of nations with a military capable of imposing order. The people of eastern Congo are utterly incapable of bringing order to the area themselves
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