DUNGU, Democratic Republic of Congo—A truck carrying Indian UN peacekeepers trundles along the red dirt roads of Luvungi, a small town in a remote part of eastern Congo, on a routine patrol in late summer. The town seems quiet, and seeing and hearing nothing unusual, the soldiers quickly pass through back to their company operating base in nearby Kibua.
But unknown to them, just out of sight and earshot, rebel gangs were systematically raping Luvungi’s residents. Over a horrific three-day period beginning July 30, more than 300 men, women and children were raped.
Mass sexual assault is tragically common in Congo, but the Luvungi rapes stood out for having taken place in such close proximity to UN troops. Amid intensive international criticism, the United Nations issued a report defending the peacekeepers.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘The Kibua COB has one interpreter and one mobile satellite phone, thus operationally restricting it to one patrol at any given time given the distances and conditions of the roads to be traversed,’ the report stated. The Indian patrol in Luvungi reportedly couldn’t linger long enough to detect the attacks were occurring, with most reportedly taking place indoors, in homes that might have been hundreds of yards apart.
The language barrier is ‘the most difficult portion’ of working in Congo, according to Sgt. Stuart Hammer, a US Army soldier deployed to Kinshasa to train Congolese troops. In the absence of a much larger contingent of interpreters (an unrealistic prospect given the UN’s budgetary constraints) the inability of most of the Indian troops in Congo to speak any of the local languages—including French and the local dialect Lingala—seriously undermines their ability to achieve their mission: protecting Congolese civilians.
But despite this serious limitation, non-Francophone Indians and other South Asians comprise a large proportion of the UN troops in Congo, for reasons rooted more in South Asian than African history.
Of Congo's 17,000 peacekeepers, about 4,300 are from India, 3,500 from Pakistan and 1,300 from Bangladesh. The force's current chief, Lt. Gen. Chander Prakash, is Indian and is said to speak little French.
Congo isn’t the only place where South Asians dominate peacekeeping. Indeed, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are three of the most ‘generous’ nations when it comes to UN peace missions. The three ‘have been the top three troop contributors to UN peacekeeping for many years, (with) roughly 10,000 (troops) each,’ says Teresita Schaffer, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.