A health worker injects a man with Ebola vaccine in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 5 2019. File picture: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER.
A health worker injects a man with Ebola vaccine in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 5 2019. File picture: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER.

Kinshasa — Protests against UN peacekeepers and national security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC’s) northeast for their failure to halt ongoing violence left several people dead in a region struggling to contain the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history.

Demonstrators in the town of Beni have burnt government buildings and attacked UN peacekeepers since last week, after a series of massacres by armed groups that left dozens dead. A Congolese policeman and three protesters died on Monday during further clashes, according to UN sources. Police arrested about 30 protesters, including several members of local armed groups.

After a weekend visiting the region, the UN top official for peacekeeping operations urged Congolese to not mistake the UN for their enemy.

“Those who are the enemy are the groups that attack and kill the population,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, UN under secretary-general for peace operations, said on Monday in the DRC capital, Kinshasa. “I say this without ignoring the frustration, sadness and anguish of the population in the region, because it is real.”

The unrest is hindering efforts to eradicate the Ebola epidemic, Lacroix said. Four Congolese nationals working on the Ebola response were killed and five others injured in two attacks by armed groups last week, according to the World Health Organisation. Some staff have been evacuated from the region.

Small gangs

More than 1,000 people have been killed around Beni in the past five years, with the government blaming most of the killings on the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist rebel group founded in neighbouring Uganda in the 1990s. Violence in the region has increased since late October, when the DRC army launched a military offensive against the ADF.

UN experts and researchers say other militias and senior DRC army officers have also been involved in planning and carrying out assaults. More than 100 armed groups are active in eastern DRC and more than a dozen operate around Beni. Sometimes small gangs with machetes hack villagers to death and steal their belongings.

The uptick in violence has led to calls for UN peacekeepers to leave DRC after 20 years. The force, once the UN’s largest, will be reduced to about 13,000 troops in January. The UN has sent reinforcements to Beni, where there are fewer than 1,000 peacekeepers and military police, Mathias Gillmann, acting spokesperson for the UN mission in DRC, said by phone on Tuesday.

“We’re facing a system that’s founded on asymmetric warfare, with people who are flexible and who hide in the thick jungle,” Lacroix said. “There’s not a simple, military response that consists of saying, ‘let’s go, do a few robust offensives and all will be solved’.”