Soldiering On

With old weapons and little money, Congo embarks on ambitious plan to rebuild army

May 30, 2004


KISANGANI, Congo (AP) _ Questions about pay in the new army's first and only brigade prompt chuckles among the men. In Congo, soldiering on a steady salary was never part of the deal.

Less humorous are the former child combatants and illiterates who pepper the ranks, a motley crew of ill-trained guerrilla fighters and government soldiers who fought on opposite sides of a five-year civil war.

Then there are the troops' rusty assault rifles, 80 percent of them knocked out of commission in the humid, tropical heat.

And ammunition? "We're waiting. It will come," the commander of the 2nd Battalion, Maj. Angole Mbula, said, his soldiers nodding in hopeful agreement.

These are the men of Congo's new integrated army _ for now, a single 3,400-man brigade that incorporates fighters from the war's rival factions.

Plans call for the army to grow eventually to about 100,000 soldiers and help reinstate government control from the capital, Kinshasa, throughout a nation the size of western Europe.

But with 300,000 fighters loyal to rival factions still under arms in de facto fiefdoms across the country, it's likely to be a long time before the new force will be able to shoulder the burden of national security.

"To make a new army ... it's going to be a lot of work, probably stretched over 10 years," said Col. Philippe Martin, who heads a Belgian military contingent sent to help train the fledgling army in this former Beglian colony.

Congo is rich in resources, but long years of dictatorship, corruption and war have left its 52 million people abjectly poor.

Perpetually unpaid military wages over the last decade mutated the Congolese military into a force known more for its ability to loot than its ability to fight.

At the beginning of the 1998-2002 war, army units in Congo's far eastern borderlands rebelled.

But as the war advanced, the rebels were often relegated to support roles behind the front lines. Key battles were fought by well-trained foreign troops _ principally from Rwanda and Uganda, who backed the rebels, and from Angola and Zimbabwe, who backed the government.

Congo's new army brigade was formed in late December. Former government forces and the two largest rebel factions each provided 30 percent of the soldiers. Smaller rebel movements and traditional Mayi Mayi bush fighters accounted for the remaining 10 percent.

No serious tensions have been reported among the former foes.

"We have no enemies here," said Capt. Taty Nboyo, who came to Kisangani from the Rwandan-backed former rebel stronghold in Goma in the east. "We're all brothers. Some of us were friends even before the war."

The transitional government has yet to pay the men, who receive salaries _ if they get any at all _ from the factions that sent them, Mbula said.

Each fitted out with one government-issued solid green uniform, a water bottle and a pair of combat boots, the troops began training directed by a small contingent of Belgian and French soldiers in February.

The training focuses on "peacekeeping support operations," including land mine awareness, first aid and human rights, Martin said.

At a recent class held at an abandoned soap factory, three Belgians explained the do's and don'ts of checkpoint security to two dozen Congolese.

Rule No. 1: Don't shoot unless you have to.

"What's most difficult is to make them understand that shooting to kill should only be a last resort," said Belgian 1st Lt. Raphael Bechet.

Many of the recruits are young, aged 18 to 20, and some fought in the civil war as children, Bechet said. At least one soldier, unable to write, took notes during workshops by drawing pictures, a Belgian officer said.

As the class continued, one Congolese soldier searched Bechet for weapons. He found none, and Bechet whipped out an unloaded pistol from his waist.

"Pow!" he said, pointing it at the soldier. "You can't miss something like this!"

After training is completed in a few months, the transitional government plans to deploy the brigade to the troubled northeastern province of Ituri, where ethnic violence has killed tens of thousands the past few years.

The region _ by far the country's most unstable _ is controlled mainly by rival tribal militias, although some areas are patrolled by 4,800 U.N. peacekeepers equipped with armored vehicles and helicopter gunships.

Given the brigade's lack of ammunition or decent weapons _ not to mention pay _ there are worries about deploying the unit to Ituri too soon. Diplomats and some officials fear disgruntled troops could end up preying on the people they are meant to protect.

Last year, the government sent several hundred police to help quell an outbreak of violence in Ituri. Within a day, half the officers had mutinied, and the rest soon sold off their rifles for cash.

"If we have people who are not looked after, they will get into a situation where they will steal, they will harass the population," Adolphe Onusumba, vice president of parliament, said in an interview.

"We have to ask ourselves first, are we able to feed the men?"

Copyright 2004 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.