Global Policy Forum

Abusive Congolese Colonel Got Aid


By Stephanie McCrummen

Washington Post
March 9, 2010


The United Nations peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo provided food, fuel and logistical support to a Congolese colonel overseeing soldiers accused of gang rapes, massacres and other abuses, months after U.N. human rights investigators included him on a list of the army's most abusive commanders and in further internal warnings.

The U.N. decision to support Col. Innocent Zimurinda and other commanders on the list has been part of the mission's backing of Congolese military operations targeting a notorious rebel group. The 10-year-old U.N. peacekeeping mission, deployed to keep an elusive peace following two devastating Congolese wars, is the most expensive in the world and receives a quarter of its budget from the United States.

In October, a top U.N. investigator cited "credible evidence" that Zimurinda had led a massacre of civilians that included the gang rape of 10 women, some of whose breasts were hacked off. In November, U.N. officials said the mission would halt support to units implicated in human rights violations, after U.N. lawyers had warned that support of abusive commanders could leave the mission vulnerable to charges of complicity in war crimes.

But in rare interviews here, Zimurinda and one of his deputies said they were still receiving supplies in December and January. A U.N. spokesman, Kevin Kennedy, said he could confirm that supplies already "in the pipeline" had continued to flow as the mission waited for legal guidance from U.N. headquarters, and he said of Zimurinda that "there may have been units under his sector command that received support."

At a news conference last week, the United Nations' head of peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, said the mission is not currently supporting units with which Zimurinda is associated.

Top U.N. officials have said human rights abuses by the Congolese military would have been worse without their participation, and they stressed the larger import of ridding the area of rebels, whose presence has helped fuel conflict for years. Among the most recent reports being reviewed by U.N. investigators are allegations that Zimurinda had given orders to execute 13 civilians, including a baby, who were shot in the back of the head and tossed into a river.

Zimurinda, 38, who controls several mineral mines in this lush, hilly farming area, has denied any involvement in human rights abuses. He calls his accusers "the enemies of peace."

"We cannot say we are happy with the level of support," Zimurinda said in the interview. "But anyway, we want to say 'thank you' to the U.N."

The U.N.-backed operations were the result of a major rapprochement between Congo and Rwanda and were considered by the United Nations, United States and others as a crucial step toward resolving one of the world's deadliest conflicts. The rebel group targeted in the operations includes leaders accused in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

But the campaign, initially backed by Rwandan soldiers, has been a disaster for civilians, with soldiers and rebels accused of committing brutal rapes, massacres and other abuses designed to punish villagers deemed uncooperative with their side. When the Rwandan military departed in February 2009, Congolese officials asked the United Nations to step in, placing the peacekeepers in the position of partnering with one of the most abusive armies in the world.

Nearly a year later, the continued support of commanders such as Zimurinda has left the mission open to criticism that it has helped perpetuate a brutal status quo in the east. At worst, human rights activists say, the mission knowingly assisted commanders as they committed atrocities and set up personal fiefdoms across eastern Congo.

A recent U.N. report found that although the operations have pushed the rebels out of mines, for instance, they are quickly being replaced by rogue army officers such as Zimurinda. A small U.S. military team is assisting the Congolese army with intelligence- gathering in its operations.

The U.N. list that included Zimurinda's name, titled in part "Officers Involved in Crimes Under International Humanitarian Law or Responsible for Gross Human Rights Violations Serving in Operation Kimia II," was drawn up around June 2009, according to people familiar with it.

"The policy was evolving all through last year," Kennedy, the U.N. spokesman, said. "Essentially, we had to drive the bus, fix the bus and write the highway code all at the same time. It took a long time to work out this policy, there's no question about that."

The military operations were suspended in December. By that time, more than a million civilians had been displaced and 1,400 deliberately killed, about half by the army, according to a recent report by the group Human Rights Watch. A new U.N. policy will govern the mission's role during the next phase of the operations, set to begin within weeks. This time, Kennedy said, support will be limited to about 1,600 soldiers from units with a clean human rights record.

Still, a preliminary list of those units includes two under Zimurinda's command. And human rights activists say the new U.N. policy should make much stronger demands on the army, conditioning support on the removal of all known abusive commanders from the operations, which involves about 60,000 soldiers.

"MONUC utterly undermines the chances for peace by keeping these individuals who have these track records in senior positions," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, referring to the U.N. mission by its acronym. "I don't think it will be easy to remove them. But there are ways to do this."

The United States pushed for the stronger U.N. policy going forward, according to a spokesman for Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But the United States stopped short of publicly demanding the removal of the abusive commanders.

Kennedy said U.N. officials "routinely" discuss the problem of abusive commanders with their Congolese army partners. "But," he said, "at this stage, we are not in a position to tell the Congolese what they must do with any particular commander."

For now, the United Nations is deferring to Congolese army officials, who say that removing commanders could cause the fragile army -- a mishmash of rebel and militia groups integrated after various peace deals -- to break up. "It is a good practice, justice -- but it must be practiced in a realistic way," said Col. Seraphin Mirindi, an officer in the east. "Justice is separate."

Zimurinda said that other army officers were pushing for his removal in order to get their hands on the lucrative mines in his territory. "During the war, it's the time the big generals make money," he said in a recent interview, adding that any attempt to remove him would be "a big mistake."

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the commander seemed refreshed and relaxed, sipping coffee at a sprawling lakeside hotel in the eastern provincial capital of Goma. Zimurinda wore a crisp, striped Fred Perry polo and a navy blue baseball cap bearing the logo of a Westin resort and spa, and as he spoke, another dimension to the complex story became clear: Rwanda.

Until recently, Zimurinda said, he was part of an ethnic-Tutsi rebel group backed by the Rwandan government to fight the rebels -- mostly ethnic Hutus -- currently targeted in the military operations. He and other former Tutsi rebels were folded into the Congolese army following the deal between Rwanda and Congo last year.

Some analysts say that keeping commanders such as Zimurinda in place accomplishes the larger political goal of satisfying Rwanda, a huge exporter of eastern Congo's minerals. Asked about any current Rwandan ties, Zimurinda said: "I only answer to God."

In this dirt road village, people called Zimurinda a warlord. They said that he extracts exorbitant taxes and forces them to carry soldiers' supplies, and that U.N. food and fuel often show up in local shops. Of the United Nations, one villager said, "They are not interested in talking to the population about their problems."

One of Zimurinda's officers, Maj. Gakwerere Dieudonne, said he had not heard any news that the United Nations was cutting supplies. "Anytime we ask them to supply us, they supply," he said.


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