On 30 June, the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium. Over the course of a pallid and humid morning, several thousand soldiers marched down the wide, balloon-covered Boulevard Triomphal in Kinshasa, the capital, while tanks, Jeeps and other military hardware rolled past as part of a triumphant military parade. After an hour or so, President Joseph Kabila stood up to give a speech but the microphone was broken, like so much else in this blighted country, and his words were unheard by the crowd.
Since independence, as many as five million people have died in Congo's wars. The curse of Congo is to have promiscuous natural wealth in the world's roughest neighbourhood. It has diamonds, gold, cassiterite, coltan, timber and rubber - as well as the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history. For more than ten years, the United Nations has had a mandate to keep the peace here - but there has been no lasting peace, least of all in the eastern Congo, where violence continues between various militia groups who scavenge off the land, killing innocent people and each other as they scramble for resources in this mineral-rich country. Now, the government of President Joseph Kabila wants the UN to leave altogether.
Kinshasa is a city of 11 million people, most of them confined to scorched tenement buildings and rusting tin shacks. The average wage is 90 cents a day in a city where a meal of steak and chips can cost $18. In the city centre, the Congolese elite live in luxury apartments, with rents comparable to those in central London. The UN headquarters is in the northern part of the city. The compound looks like an embattled fort in a war zone: high walls of barbed wire and broken glass sit behind concrete breeze blocks placed strategically along the road. Outside, people beg for money, with a refrain that I heard again and again: "Un dollar, un dollar, un dollar."
General Babacar Gaye is the Senegalese commander of the 20,000-odd UN troops in Congo. "Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers [but] it is a job only soldiers can perform," he told me when we met. "This is not classic warfare where the objective is to defeat the enemy. Occasionally you need to use force, to ensure things stay on track or to deter or convince. But you are accompanying a [political] process."
The soldiers operate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of "lethal force" to keep the peace. "Lethal force gives you more freedom of action," said General Gaye. "You can take the initiative when you feel that the population is under imminent threat." (In Rwanda during the genocide of 2004 the UN peacekeeping force, led by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian, was not permitted to use "lethal force" against the local population, and was thus rendered helpless to prevent the slaughter of as many as 900,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis.)
Since independence, five million people have died in Congo's wars. After the Belgians left, Patrice Lumumba became the first indigenous prime minister, but his strident anti-imperialism alarmed the western powers and he was assassinated in a Belgian-US plot only three months after coming to office. In 1965, following a period of infighting, Mobutu Sese Seko, a tough but sharp army chief of staff, seized power in bloodless coup and, in 1971, renamed the country Zaire.
His despotic regime was toppled in 1996 by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a corrupt regional governor from eastern Congo. He was supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila had learned well from his predecessor and he installed his own sprawling kleptocracy as well as changing the country's name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But he made a fatal mistake: in 1998 he ordered the Rwandans and Ugandans to leave. They pulled back temporarily, before launching a counter-invasion during which they seized a third of the country.
Kabila called on the support of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, who entered the war on his behalf, bribed with the promise of access to Congo's vast mineral wealth. In 1999, the UN decided enough was enough and passed resolution 1279, which resulted in the creation of a permanent peacekeeping force in Congo. It is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in history. The war officially ended in 2003, but militia groups continue to operate with impunity - especially in the east, where Rwanda is fighting a proxy war against Hutu militia - and different ethnic groups from inside the country clash over land and territory.
The current president, in office since the assassination of his father in 2001, is Joseph Kabila Kabange, commonly known as Joseph Kabila. Aged 39, he is something of a mystery. Kabila has maintained close relations with the Rwandans (he fought alongside them during his father's rebellion against Mobutu) and this has aroused suspicion among political rivals and international agencies that his policies may not be entirely independent. A fear of assassination means he makes few public appearances and his intentions are opaque.
What is clear is that, from 2001 to 2006, he ruled as the head of a transitional government, one strongly influenced by the international agencies present in Congo. However, in 2006, following internationally supervised elections deemed "free and fair" by the UN, he emerged as the head of a sovereign state with a genuine democratic mandate. He then began to assert his authority, pushing back all foreign influence - including the UN.
However, there are suspicions that there may be something more sinister beyond mere grandstanding in his desire to have the UN leave Congo. Since the elections, he has displayed increasingly authoritarian behaviour. Local elections scheduled for 2010 have been postponed, and he wants to extend the presidential mandate from five to seven years. The chances of his forging a more dictatorial regime during his second presidential mandate (presidential elections are due in 2011) increase if the UN leaves, and international scrutiny with it.
The UN Security Council is not sure that Kabila is ready to take full control; under its new mandate, the UN peacekeeping presence was extended earlier this year to run until 30 June 2011. The decision followed the call in May by the government for an end to the UN peacekeeping mission at the latest by mid-2011, before the planned presidential elections scheduled for November that year. "Everyone was a bit surprised by the government's decision," General Gaye told me. "It is not our intention to remain indefinitely in the Congo. But we feel it is best not to leave the country in a precipitous way that will create a return to square one."
This is what human-rights groups fear most: the chaos that may fill a UN-shaped hole in the country.
One morning in Kinshasha, I visited a ramshackle government building to speak to Lambert Mende, Congo's smooth and smiling minister of information. "The UN has done a good job in Congo," he said. "But it has been ten years that it is here. No nation in the world accepts that others fulfil tasks on their behalf. They are here for a given time. And this time should end one day."
Peacekeeping is by its nature temporary; the UN is never any more than a guest in someone else's country. Whether widescale violence returns to Congo will depend on the ability of its own army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), to keep order. But what exactly is the army? Last year, 22 militia groups were invited to stop killing and join up. Absorbed into the FARDC, they retained parallel chains of command, "taxing" and terrorising the local population. Many believe the FARDC is a collection of killers and rapists who now wear one uniform instead of many. I put this to Mende. "Two and a half per cent of the army is in prison," he said, rather triumphantly. "I know very few armies in the world which, in the middle of a conflict, would immobilise 2.5 per cent of its forces for disciplinary reasons. They never tell you this!
“The Congolese army is being rebuilt. In 18 months it will be sufficiently trained to defend the Congolese people, and to deal with this existing threat in the east [of the country] - which is a residual threat, not a significant one. We will be ready and that is the truth," he added.
Ever since Belgian rule, Congo has fed the world's lust for resources. during colonial times, we wanted rubber; today we want cassiterite and coltan, minerals that are used in the manufacture of PlayStations and mobile phones.
Congo has a border with nine countries, seven of which have had armies on its soil in the past 30 years. In 1998 the Rwandans invaded, citing the need to combat Hutu rebel units that had fled into Congo; a claim somewhat undermined, as their armies headed not for the Hutu encampments but for the mineral mines in the north-east of the country, where foreign-backed militia continue to loot and kill. On 24 February 2003, before the UN arrived in Congo, rebel militias entered Bogoro - a village near the small town of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province in the north-east, close to the Ugandan and Sudanese borders - and killed more than 200 people, a crime for which the militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui are now on trial at the International Criminal court in The Hague.
One afternoon, I went out on patrol with Banbat 7, the Bangladeshi peacekeeping battalion in Bunia, and there I met a woman named Banébuné; she was 13 when the militia raided her village that February day seven years ago. "They were killing with machetes," she said. "They were saying, 'Don't waste bullets - just slash them.' There was so much blood. Children, old people, even pregnant women - anyone who couldn't run was cut down."
How did the FARDC army respond? "They did nothing." I asked Banébuné how she felt about the people that raided her village. "I cannot forgive them," she told me. "Only God can forgive. I pray to him that justice will find those that did this."
Another villager called Mwengwe picked up the story. He used to farm cows but the militia stole them, he said. "When we heard the firing, we all fled to the school." But the militia were waiting in the classroom where we now stood. "I jumped out of the window and ran away.
I wasn't alone; there were many of us running. But on the way so many were killed. I lost my mother and two of my sisters [in the slaughter]." As we were leaving, Mwengwe asked if someone from the government would put headstones on the graves as had been promised.
In July 2003, the UN passed Resolution 1493, bringing Chapter VII to the Congo. Back at base, General Hasan, the Bangladeshi commander, spoke of how effective it had been. "A peacekeeper is the most constrained man," he said. "Chapter VII enabled us to properly protect civilians. "
The last rebel attack was in February this year. Militias had emerged from the bush to shoot dead three villagers before fleeing. The situation remains uneasy, but there has at least been an improvement and local people feel safer. "Guns are a last resort - to save people who don't have guns," General Hasan said. "So it is for the greater good."
It is the UN mission, bolstered by Chapter VII, that has made the difference in Bunia, not the Congolese army. But a larger conflict still smoulders. I travelled on a UN helicopter 300 miles further north to the town of Dungu, in the Haut Uélé district, where the murderous Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army has its stronghold. Led by the notorious Joseph Kony, a high-school drop-out who believes he is God's spokesman on earth, the LRA has, since its formation in 1986, kidnapped as many as 30,000 children and displaced over a million people. In 2005 the government of President Yoweri Museveni forced Kony and his followers to flee Uganda; they settled in Congo's Garamba National Park. They have been killing and raping ever since.
In 2008, Congo, Uganda and South Sudan undertook a joint military campaign against the LRA, "Operation Lightning Thunder", but which failed to kill Kony and his lieutenants, who disappeared into the bush. They took their revenge on the local population. On 24 and 25 December, the LRA simultaneously attacked three surrounding Congolese towns, and 500 people were killed in what became known as the Christmas Massacres. The LRA remains the main threat to peace in this part of the country; the freedom it has to strike will be a test of both the UN and of FARDC's efficacy and of the possibility of lasting stability in Congo.
At Dungu airport, we were greeted by a Tunisian peacekeeper in a battered Jeep, with one door hanging from its hinge. The Jeep's tyres churned up red dust as it sped along a dirt track on the approach to the Guatemalan special forces base, a few kilometres from Garamba. A ten-foot-high barbed-wire security fence surrounded the camp, with watchtowers at each corner of the perimeter. Three white tents, with "UN" emblazoned across them, 30 feet long and ten feet wide, were home to 80 soldiers. Three UN Jeeps, with mounted machine-guns, lined the dirt courtyard, and nearby helicopters took off and landed.
The FARDC camp was located 30 metres away along the same dirt track. In place of gates there was only a makeshift barrier - a gnarled tree trunk that was raised and lowered by a bored soldier. A huge white tent was home to a group of 100 men. The front two poles of the tent had fallen down and the whole thing was close to collapse. Two rusty Soviet-era Jeeps were parked next to the tent. Someone had painted "FARDC" on a piece of cardboard and hung it by the entrance. This was the camp of the troops who will be required to protect the people once the UN peacekeepers have gone.
The Guatemalans are on the front line of the peacekeeping mission and, after much argument, I was allowed to go out on patrol with them to Dungu. The patrols, explained our guide, Private Byron Monzon, were vital because of the LRA threat in the region.
It began to rain heavily as we set off and our vehicle was soon sluicing across the saturated, pitted road. A soldier sat at the mounted machine-gun. "As far as we know, the LRA have rocket launchers," Monzon said as we drove along Dungu's main street. Children played in pools of mud, and women - it is always women - struggled beneath improbably heavy loads.
We were meeting Rémy Sitako, a local priest. "Since the LRA arrived, things have worsened," he said, sitting in his gloomy office, lit by single splinter of light from a tiny window. "They commit massacres and burn houses. Sometimes they mutilate. They cut off people's lips and ears . . . I believe some undisciplined elements in the Congolese army are also involved."
What did he think of the UN and its peacekeeping mission? "Occasionally, they take part in joint operations to re-establish security.
This is reassuring. But we would like them to intervene more." What if they were to leave? "Insecurity is still too high. If they go now, there will be a catastrophe."
The key to security is the night patrols. The LRA uses the cover of darkness to scavenge from or raid local villages. One evening, out on patrol, we travelled with two platoons for safety as our armoured personnel carrier cut its way through maize fields. On the edge of the town, we paused alongside a bridge straddling a stream. What happened next happened very quickly: without warning our vehicle surged across the bridge and swerved to the right, creating a protective shield for the three Jeeps behind it. Six soldiers jumped out and formed an armoured wall while four more soldiers fanned out across the bridge. There were guttural shouts in Spanish and another six soldiers from the Jeep behind ran into thickets of bush either side of us. Gun-mounted lights crisscrossed in the gloom. Monzon whistled and two villagers emerged from the darkness. The LRA had been sighted two kilometres to the north, they said, not close enough for engagement but close enough for alarm. Monzon was relaxed enough: troops from the LRA will not attack tonight, he said. They do not like to fight those who can fight back.
Spend any time in Congo and you quickly become articulate in the language of international diplomacy - "failed state", "nation-building", "peacekeeping" and so on. On the ground, you understand the hollowness of all such talk. But on that night patrol in Dungu, I understood the importance of the UN's continuing role in the country, because it is the peacekeepers alone who have the means to protect the people.
There is a fundamental political difference in Congo today between the government and the UN: the latter wants greater transparency and democracy; President Kabila wants nothing of the kind. He wants the UN peacekeepers out; the UN fears the violence that would follow its departure. The UN mission is underfunded, overstretched and imperfect. Tens of thousands of innocents continue to suffer, as was shown by the recent mass rape of around 200 women in Luvungi, only 20 miles from a UN base.
Congo works on Darwinian arithmetic. The strong oppress the weak, as they have done for as long as Europeans have been present in this part of Africa. However, in Dungu and in many other places like it, a thin blue line of UN peacekeepers is all that separates the people from the cruelty and violence of the Lord's Resistance Army and from many other rebel groups like them. It is a bleak truth that, without the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, Congo would collapse again into a chaos of violence and destruction; and with its mineral-hungry neighbours still meddling in the country and ethnic hatreds simmering, Congo's war will once more be Africa's war.