Consultant to the United Nations Major General Patrick C. Cammaert, who was in India last week to train peacekeeping forces, confessed that dealing with the reality of rape as a weapon of war wasn’t easy

The city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) sounds like an unlikely destination for seeking motivation. The capital of South Kivu province in eastern Congo, Bukavu has been synonymous with stories of never-ending war and sexual violence; a New York Times report describes Eastern Congo as one of the “most poor and dysfunctional places on earth”. But Major General (retd) Patrick C. Cammaert, former commander of the peacekeeping forces in eastern Congo, is different. “Every time I am sad, frustrated and need motivation, I take a helicopter to Bukavu,” he said.

In Bukavu, the Dutch General always visits his friend and now a national hero in Congo, Dr. Denis Mukwege. Dr. Mukwege is credited with running the Panzi Hospital, a major center for treating victims of rape and sexual brutalities. “There are so many victims of sexual violence in that hospital, from age three to 83. It’s just horrific. All your troubles seem nothing in front of that,” said Patrick, adding that he broke down once while hearing a victim speak about her ordeal.

At the outset, this reaction seems unusual. After all, the 63-year-old has spent enough time in conflict zones: he was the division commander of the peacekeeping forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (now the UN’s largest peacekeeping operations in the world), and has been force commander in Eritrea and Ethiopia for several years, and was appointed the Military Advisor in the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations in 2002. However, last week, on a visit to New Delhi for a training session for peacekeepers, the retired General confessed that dealing with the reality of rape as a weapon of war wasn’t easy. “In the IDP camps (camps for internally displaced persons) in Congo, I have seen that people have no food at all. Women are raped by policemen in the night. Peacekeeping officers don’t know what to do when they find about these cases; sometimes they just don’t take any action,” he said.

So, for the past two and a half years, the General has been training peacekeepers on recognising the problem of sexual violence, dealing with it and taking preventive steps. The training modules have been designed by UN Women and UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and involve the use of video clips that acquaint the forces with the situation at ground zero. “I also give the officers a real life situation. Let’s say, a 30-member patrol comes across a 13-year-old girl, heavily wounded and a victim of gang rape. What are they to do? They need to take her to a hospital and get her vaccinated to prevent HIV infection. Before that, they need to enquire how far she has walked to get to them, and how long has it been already. The vaccination needs to be administered within 72 hours. See, these are things soldiers don’t know,” he explains, adding that troops need to discuss possibilities of rehabilitation of the victims who are shunned by their communities.

Here, Major General Cammaert feels that women officers can make that crucial difference: reach out better to victims of sexual violence, as well as the local population. He cites the success of the “female engagement teams” used by the US army in Afghanistan to access information from the local population. “Men only know how to enter houses with their boots,” he said, kicking his feet in the air, mimicking a soldier’s entry into a house with his boots. Currently, women officers comprise a miniscule three per cent of the military personnel in the UN peacekeeping forces. Women officers, said Patrick, are crucial to get access to information about where the next round of violence might happen and prevent it. Ask him about India’s all-women peacekeeping contingent that was sent to Liberia, and he is all praises for the women “who can’t be messed around with.”

The need for “specialised” female officers aside, the General minces no words when it comes to the use of force for preventing violence. Forces need to be preventive in nature and do everything to prevent violence and protect civilians, even if that means using force beyond self-defense, he said. Earlier this year, the United Nations had, for the first time, authorized peacekeeping forces in the DRC to undertake offensive military action against the rebels. According to news reports in the international press, the first ever offensive by the peacekeepers was launched on August 28 and is reported to have already made some gains against the rebels. “Peacekeeping forces have for long been only reactive; soldiers are scared for their careers and the casualties; nobody wants to bring body bags home,” he said, adding that the UN is criticised not for doing too much, but for doing “too little”.

The past couple of months have been controversial for the 14-year-long UN peacekeeping mission in DRC: most recently, the forces have been blamed for standing by when rebels conquered the city of Goma last November, according to a news report in The Guardian. There are also reports of peacekeepers not being able to do much when an attack by armed men left behind 300 victims of sexualized violence in just four days in 2010. “Soldiers are trained professionals, they have the best equipment and they must use it to prevent violence," said the outspoken General, before wrapping up the interview to fly to his next training destination. "If they are scared, they should just stay at home."

(Namita Kohli is a Fulbright scholar and an independent journalist)

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