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.
‘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.
South Asian countries have some very specific reasons aside from ‘doing the right thing’ for sending troops abroad on UN missions—reasons that often have little to do with the nature and needs of the host country. It’s an often overlooked truth that donor nations can benefit, or even profit, from their contributions to peace missions, given the right circumstances.
For India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for example, peacekeeping is an inexpensive way to maintain large armies and boost the pay of select troops, while also building diplomatic inroads in poorer countries that might be rich in resources that South Asia lacks. The human cost to the three countries is relatively low: in August, three Indian peacekeepers were killed in a rebel attack on their eastern Congo base, bringing to 170 the number of Indians killed on UN peace missions since 1950, as of the time of writing. By contrast, the cost to conflict-ravaged countries desperate for effective peacekeepers could be quite high: in Congo, measured in the violated bodies of countless rape victims.
Just outside the town of Dungu in north-eastern Congo, what amounts to a tiny Bangladeshi village thrives adjacent to the town's UN-run airstrip. A clutch of trailers is home to around 100 Bangladeshi airmen who manage air operations and fly two Mi-17 helicopters stationed here. Their mission is to maintain transportation links between UN personnel in Dungu and major UN bases elsewhere in Congo.
It’s difficult work, owing to the heat, dust and unpredictable weather that makes every flight a gamble. Plus, the Bangladeshis sometimes feel isolated from the Congolese civilians they are meant to protect. ‘There’s a language barrier,’ Squadron Leader Shaheen Salwar admits to this correspondent.
But the Bangladeshis’ yearlong rotations represent the best, and most lucrative, training anyone in the Bangladeshi military could hope for. Back home, a Bangladeshi air force pilot typically flies fewer than 100 hours annually, owing to the high price of fuel and aircraft maintenance. Even the relatively deep-pocketed US Air Force only allows its pilots around 200 hours a year in the air. But in Dungu, with fuel and salaries paid by the United Nations, the 10 Bangladeshi chopper pilots each fly as many as 300 hours a year. ‘The rewarding part is, I’m flying aircraft,’ says Squadron Leader Hassan Rayhan.
For the Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians, the higher pay while on UN operations is another consideration. ‘The UN pays peacekeeping troops more than these three armies would, especially for enlisted personnel,’ Schaffer says. ‘In Bangladesh, this is a significant factor. I'm told they rotate peacekeeping duty to give more troops a chance at a little extra pay.’
‘The financial benefits to individuals who proceed on such missions are undeniable,’ retired Indian general Dhruv Katoch, now an analyst with the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, says.‘Very rarely will an individual turn down an offer for a UN assignment.’
What’s more, while a soldier is deployed with the United Nations his respective defense ministry can remove him from the government payroll. In that sense, UN peacekeeping offers South Asian armies the opportunity to keep 10,000 troops apiece in their force structure at no cost to themselves. It’s a tremendous bargain, provided the military can spare the troops. ‘At some point it could become a burden on an over-stretched army,’ Schaffer says.
But Pakistan, with its ongoing military operations in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, ‘is the only country that would have to worry about that; so far it hasn't restricted Pakistan's contributions,’ Schaffer adds.
Of course, the pay differential only really benefits armies from developing nations. There’s no financial incentive for, say, an American soldier to spend a year serving with a UN force, as his pay rate at home is higher than what the United Nations can offer. The Pentagon might save money by offloading a few thousand troops to some UN missions every year, but for the troops themselves, it would mean a morale-hurting pay cut. As long as South Asian economies remain relatively impoverished compared to developing nations, peacekeeping will retain its financial allure. The United Nations, then, is a meal ticket, helping pay for bigger and better-trained forces than developing countries could afford on their own.
South Asian countries benefit in other ways from their major peacekeeping roles. For example, peace missions have enabled South Asia to build economic and diplomatic ties with a large number of poorer developing countries. In this way, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh gain ‘influence and credibility,’ Katoch says. This seems particularly important to India, at least as far as Congo is concerned. With a billion people and nearly ten percent annual GDP growth, India is most in need of something Congo has in abundance: resources.
Copper, tin, coltan and uranium are just a few of the many rare minerals mined in Congo. A large proportion of Congo’s mineral output ends up in Chinese refineries, with China processing the raw ore and selling it onward to the world’s advanced economies. In exchange for a steady supply of rocks, Beijing invests heavily in Congolese enterprises and builds much of the country’s new infrastructure.
Only a few countries possess the diplomatic clout to cut out the Chinese middle-man and forge direct deals with the Congolese government. However hobbled they are by the language barrier, India’s peacekeepers in Congo have still helped open doors to New Delhi’s business interests. The first Indians were deployed to Congo in 2003 and by 2008, Kinshasa and New Delhi were discussing greatly strengthened economic ties. In January of that year, Congo agreed to partner with India in the mining of copper, cobalt and industrial diamonds.
‘We want to take our business relations with India to a different, higher level in various sectors,’ says Kasongo Musenga, an official with the Congolese embassy in New Delhi. ‘While we have a lot to offer in terms of our natural resources, we’re seeking India's technology and expertise to develop our country.’ To that end, New Delhi extended Kinshasa an expanding line of credit valued at more than $250 million in 2009, and Indian loans have bankrolled power, water, transportation and education projects.
At a meeting to discuss the two countries’ rapidly deepening economic ties, Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba hinted at the roots of the partnership when he praised the Indian UN contingent in his country. The Indian force, Mwamba crowed, ‘has not only engaged in peacekeeping but also carried out significant humanitarian work for the Congolese.’ Never mind that India’s real motives might have been less than charitable.
Mwamba’s compliments aside, peacekeeping itself is perhaps more effective as a training tool and vehicle for trade than it is as a means of actually keeping the peace—particularly where the UN deploys troops incapable of communicating with the local population.
The lone Indian truck rolling through rape-ravaged Luvungi this summer certainly underscored this point. ‘As of now, the United Nations doesn’t have the teeth to enforce peace anywhere,’ Katoch says. But for South Asian countries reaping the benefits of donning the United Nations’ distinctive light-blue helmets, that probably doesn’t matter all that much.