UNITED NATIONS – The top U.N. envoy in Congo said Wednesday that two peacekeeping patrols were not informed by villagers that mass rapes were taking place and the United Nations is now working to improve communications and prevent any recurrence.
Roger Meece, the new U.N. special representative, said peacekeepers didn't learn about the "horrific" rapes of at least 154 Congolese civilians for nearly two weeks, which showed that the force's actions to protect civilians were insufficient and need to be improved.
He said one idea being pursued was to have villages report to the U.N.'s forward operating base at Kibua every day. If the force did not receive a report, he said, it would assume there was a problem and send a patrol to investigate.
Meece gave the most detailed account of the U.N.'s actions since Monday's report that Rwandan and Congolese rebels gang-raped nearly 200 women and some baby boys over four days not far from Kibua in eastern Congo's mining district. He spoke to reporters at U.N. headquarters by videoconference from Goma in eastern Congo.
Will F. Cragin of the International Medical Corps said Monday that aid and U.N. workers knew rebels had occupied Luvungi
town and surrounding villages the day after the attack began on July 30. He told The Associated Press his organization was only able to get into the town after rebels ended their brutal spree of raping and looting and withdrew of their own accord on Aug. 4.
The U.N. wasn't made aware of the attacks until more than a week later, despite the fact that U.N. patrols had been in Luvungi twice after the attacks began.
Pressed on why two U.N. patrols learned nothing about the mass rapes, Meece said he could only speculate, noting that communication is always a problem in Congo.
"There is, of course, a significant amount of cultural baggage ... associated with rapes in this area, as well as elsewhere." he said. "Is it conceivable that the local villagers were afraid of reprisals if they reported anything to MONUSCO? Possible. Is it conceivable that they were ashamed of what has happened in some form? That's possible."
"I can only speculate as to what may have been the reasons, but I know that these can be very powerful in the local society and environment," he said.
According to an American aid worker and a Congolese doctor, the rebels gang-raped nearly 200 women and some baby boys.
Meece, a former U.S. ambassador to Congo, said the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, first received information on July 31 that combatants from the Rwandan rebel FDLR group were in the area, but there was "no suggestion at this point of an attack, much less of ... the mass rape in the villages in the area."
The following day, the U.N. received information that Congolese Mai-Mai rebels were also moving to the area, probably to establish a roadblock of commercial traffic to get money, Meece said.
The U.N. learned later on Aug. 1 that a roadblock had been established, he said.
Early on Aug. 2, Meece said, a Congolese army patrol took off from its base at Mpofe toward Kibua and the U.N. later learned that the roadblock was removed, that Congolese soldiers and "remnants" of the rebel groups exchanged fire, and that the number of rebels in the area "dramatically decreased."
The U.N. had no direct contact with the Congolese patrol "nor was there any information to suggest that there was large-scale rape," he said.
A U.N. patrol also stopped in the village of Luvungi on Aug. 2, he said, "but the village people did not make any reports of what had happened in the preceding days."
Meece said another MONUSCO patrol stopped in Luvungi on Aug. 9 and "once against there was no information that rapes had taken place, no less mass rapes."
"The first reports that we got of the widespread rape ... was on Aug. 12" from the International Medical Corps, and the following day a U.N. Joint Human Rights and protection team went to the area to investigate.
Meece said the U.N. force is reviewing its patrol activities and considering holding meetings with local officials in the villages to increase contact.
He said about 80 peacekeepers based at Kibua are responsible for 300 square kilometers (115 square miles).
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sent Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Atul Khare to Congo to help investigate. He also sent his Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, to take charge of the U.N.'s response and follow-up to the attacks.
Ban also urged the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to "seriously consider what more we can do" in Congo and elsewhere to protect civilians during peacekeeping operations.