When Bipin Rawat took charge of the United Nations’ North Kivu Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo eight years ago, things weren’t going too well for the world’s costliest peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym MONUC.
The locals were contemptuous of UN peacekeepers, questioning what difference they had made in their lives and accusing the mission of doing little to protect them. Angry crowds would often hurl stones at UN vehicles on the streets of Goma, the capital of North Kivu and where the Indian brigade is based.
Lieutenant General Rawat, who will take over as army chief on December 31, was a brigadier when he was sent to the Congo in August 2008 to command the Indian Army’s, then as now, largest deployment on foreign soil. He hit the ground running and quickly grasped the reason the peacekeepers were struggling to contain the crisis in the Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
“We were not fighting with our equipment, despite Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorising the use of force in some scenarios. We have decided to fight with our equipment,” Rawat told this correspondent who was then covering the conflict in eastern Congo.
“They knew we were willing to go the extra mile to protect them.”
Rawat reworked the velvet-glove strategy to an iron fist within a month of his arrival, frequently authorising the use of attack helicopters to strafe positions held by rebel groups responsible for civilian deaths, recruiting child soldiers and displacing millions of people.
As the Congo’s internal conflict raged, he ordered the deployment of infantry combat vehicles rigged with machine guns and cannons to crush rebels and enforce peace in flashpoints such as Tonga, Kanyabayonga, Rutshuru and Bunagana.
In a remarkable turnaround, peacekeepers facing public anger soon became a symbol of hope for the local communities.
The change in attitude was clearly visible when thousands of locals, caught in the crossfire between the Congolese forces and rebel fighters, took refuge in an army base at Masisi located 80km from Goma.
The crowd clapped and cheered for the peacekeepers as Indian helicopter gunships swooped down and sprayed rockets on rebel positions, allowing the Congolese army to push them back.
“They knew we were willing to go the extra mile to protect them,” Rawat then told this correspondent.
Interestingly, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was heading the Bukavu-based South Kivu brigade in 2007. The two Kivu brigades were under the Eastern Divison then commanded by former army chief General Bikram Singh.