TCHE, Congo -- Early one morning last month, Capt. Shebih Hassan, a U.N. peacekeeper from Pakistan, spotted crowds of terrified women and children gathering at the foot of grassy hills near his battalion's camp.
Hassan and his fellow peacekeepers streamed out to meet the group. They listened as the women tearfully told them about the militiamen who had shot at them, abducted some of the younger women and stolen their animals and money, he recalled. Several chubby-cheeked toddlers had deep machete wounds that were still bleeding.
A U.N. peacekeeper guards a refugee camp in Tche, Congo. The 16,000-member force is regarded as the most troubled U.N. peacekeeping mission.
(Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
Over the next several days, Hassan said, more women and children came, until the group had swollen to 20,000. Hassan's battalion airlifted the most severely injured to a hospital in Bunia, the capital of the eastern region of Ituri. The villagers set up a camp in a valley, and the peacekeepers dug trenches and posted tanks to protect it.
But what the peacekeepers were unable to do, Hassan said, was prevent the attack and others like it in the first place.
"Standing there, watching, I felt very depressed about it," he said, as smoke from cooking fires in the camp billowed into the air. "You hear about something, or see something, and you want to put it right. But we have a tendency to react more than we have to prevent."
The peacekeepers based here in the hills of Tche form part of the U.N. presence in Congo, a mission charged with protecting civilians in a still-volatile part of the world. With 16,000 members, it is the United Nations' largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission. But it is also regarded as the most troubled, faulted for failing to safeguard victims in attack after attack despite being authorized to use all necessary means to do so.
Reports that the peacekeepers have sexually exploited girls and women in eastern Congo have also tarnished the reputation of the mission, which has become symbolic of the failures of modern peacekeeping and stirred a debate on the effectiveness and goals of such operations.
"This is the hardest operation the U.N. has ever undertaken," said Col. Mahmoud Hussein, a Bangladeshi who is deputy brigade commander of the Ituri region. "But we are trying."
Already, the five-year regional war that officially ended in 2003 and its aftermath have left an estimated 3 million to 4 million people dead, mostly from disease and hunger, in a human catastrophe fought largely outside the view of the West. Every day, about 20 children die in the squalid camps of eastern Congo, according to the United Nations, creating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said last week that peacekeeping efforts in Congo were severely understaffed and has requested more troops. Peacekeepers in Ituri, for instance, are responsible for protecting 6 million people.
"Kosovo has 2 million people and 60,000 NATO troops," Hassan lamented, referring to the Serb province. "This is only part of many problems."
The militias in Ituri attack villages, loot property, force people out of their homes and then live in them. The region contains Africa's largest single deposit of gold, along with diamonds, coltan, cobalt and other minerals, and U.N. officials say the fight is more about greed than ethnic hatred. The fighters switch loyalties easily, depending on who is currently controlling the vast wealth.
The United Nations has given the fighters until April 1 to hand in their weapons, saying that those who do not could face prosecution. But there is little incentive for them to put down their weapons.
"In Liberia and Sierra Leone the fighters were tired. Here they are ready. Is it the role of peacekeepers from day to day to side with one faction or another and fight an entire war?" said Hassan's boss, Maj. Irfran Hashmi. "It's a very tough issue when you have so much war during peacekeeping."