Widely criticized for standing idly by as militias attacked one village after another in the country's northeastern region, U.N. peacekeepers in Congo are stepping up efforts to protect civilians.
The U.N. helicopter carrying mainly peacekeeping troops from Pakistan touches down in the remote village of Tche, where as many as 20,000 Congolese are crowded into a makeshift camp on a grassy hillside protected by U.N. troops.
The Congolese here are ethnic Hemas seeking U.N. protection. They are the victims of Congo's latest wave of violence as militias dominated by the rival Lendu carry out pre-dawn raids on their villages.
Since December, Lendu fighters have driven more than 100,000 Hemas from their homes and farms. They have killed hundreds, by some estimates, and raped scores of women and girls. Lendu militias have abducted thousands of Hemas to work as slave laborers on farms and in the ports under Lendu control.
The U.N. mission in Congo and its 16,000-member peacekeeping force, the largest and most expensive U.N. operation in world, have been unable to stop these attacks or dozens of others in northern Congo's Ituri and North Kivu provinces.
But not for lack of trying, say U.N. military commanders. Most attacks are carried out in the breezy silence of these remote hills, often beyond the reach of any cellular phone network and usually a two-day walk to the nearest U.N. outpost.
The United Nations suspects that neighboring Uganda and Rwanda are supporting these militias to maintain their hold on the region's wealth. Both countries deny involvement in Congo's conflict.
Deputy brigade commander for the Ituri region Bangladeshi Colonel Mahmoud Hussein says the U.N. Congo mission is one of his most difficult assignments, partly because the Congolese government has not asserted its presence in the region.
"I tell that among the peacekeeping operations where there are troops, this is the hottest operation that the U.N. has undertaken,” he said. “Each tribe is taking on the other tribe. And they are getting the weapons. The weapons flow is a question. An exact rehabilitation program from the transitional government side is missing. There is absolutely no administration in the area. There are no government officials. There are no government officials in the custom checkpoints. All the goods that are coming in have dues that are being collected by the militia people, and they are distributing it amongst themselves."
Congo's war officially ended two-years ago, but flare-ups have continued in the northeastern hills of Ituri as five ethnically-based militias vie for the regions ports, its roads and its mineral wealth, which includes coltan, uranium, gold, and oil. The conflict in Ituri, most analysts say, is less about ethnicity and more about greed.
U.N. military experts estimate that at least 15,000 militia fighters roam the hills of Ituri. They tax the populations. The fighters maintain checkpoints at the Lake Albert ports and on well-traveled roads to collect import duties and tolls, their automatic rifles, known here as "a Congolese credit card", slung menacingly over their shoulders.
But now U.N. peacekeepers are beginning to forcibly disarm the militia groups. U.N. troops are using cordon-and-search missions in which they swoop down on a village or suspected militia outpost and confiscate any weapons they find.
One such operation led last month to the deadly ambush of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers, allegedly by Lendu fighters. The killings prompted what many here view as retaliation by U.N. soldiers, who attacked a military camp a few days later, killing up to 60 Lendu fighters.
Bunia's district commissioner Petronila Vaweka explains that most of these militiamen are slow to respond to calls to disarm because they have no other way of making a living.
Ms. Vaweka speaks through a translator.
"The main problem is that weapons are too many to be kept by militias or by young people,” she explained. “So what could be better is first to create the mentalities to withdraw those weapons from those young people. If they are still keeping those weapons it is because there is nobody to provide them a job."
Jobs are slow in coming to this volatile region of Congo, where the vast majority of people eke out a living as subsistence farmers. But even that has become too dangerous with militia groups scouring the hills where most of the farms are located.
And that begins the downward spiral: there are fewer safe places to grow food, which means more and more people go hungry and are more vulnerable to diseases.
The situation has become intolerable, says Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo. The United Nations has renewed its vow to protect the population and this week issued an ultimatum to Ituri's militias, "You have two weeks to turn in your weapons, or else." Its not clear what the it plans to do with those who do not comply.
"Our mandate is first and foremost to protect the civilian population,” he said. “ We have the means to do it. We have the mandate given by the international community. And were absolutely determined to use that mandate and the troops we have to conduct that, and to curtail and to put a cramp on criminal activity that results in terrorizing the population. This has to stop. And were going to work as vigorously as possible to make it stop.”
Congo's government in Kinshasa is trying to bolster its presence in this region. Already hundreds of soldiers and police officers have begun operations in the shadow of the U.N. troops. With national elections less than a year away, many people here are hoping that the U.N. troops, working side-by-side with Congolese authorities, can restore order in time for the polls, their first free and open election since independence.