BUNIA, Congo - For six days, two terrified United Nations
military observers phoned their superiors - as many as four times a
day - begging to be evacuated from their remote outpost in
They were receiving death threats, they said. They were alone and
unarmed in Mongbwalu, a former gold-mining town ruled by the
cannibalistic Lendu tribal militias. A U.N. helicopter from the town
of Bunia could have retrieved them in 35 minutes.
But the United Nations, handcuffed by its own rules and
bureaucracy, never sent a chopper. On May 18, 10 days after the two
peacekeepers made their first distress call, the United Nations
finally flew some armed peacekeepers to Mongbwalu.
They found the mutilated bodies of Maj. Safwat al Oran, 37, of
Jordan, and Capt. Siddon Davis Banda, 29, of Malawi.
Their decomposed corpses had been tossed into a canal and covered
with dirt, according to those who saw the bodies. They were shot in
the eyes. Their stomachs were split open and their hearts and livers
were missing. One man's brain was gone.
The murders laid bare the challenge of bringing peace to one of
the world's complex and resilient wars and exposed the limits of the
United Nation's efforts to do so.
The U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC) has been criticized by many,
including some in its own rank-and-file, for being disorganized and
naive. Now, its critics charge, it's also partly responsible for the
deaths of the two observers.
"Why didn't they rescue them? They had armed troops here, who
could have saved them," said one U.N. observer in Bunia, who spoke
on condition of anonymity.
"They killed them."
Col. Daniel Vollot, the MONUC sector commander in Bunia, said all
U.N. employees here work in dangerous, unpredictable conditions and
that MONUC isn't responsible for the deaths of Banda and Oran.
"We can't feel guilty," said Vollot. "Certainly, if we had
arrived two or three days before, they would be alive. It's
difficult, but I don't feel guilty about that."
The murders were a serious setback to U.N. operations in Congo's
Ituri province, where some 50,000 people have died in fighting
between Hema and Lendu tribal armies since 1999. After the killings,
the United Nations pulled out all its military observers and sent
them to Bunia, Ituri's largest town.
Now little is known about what happens even a few miles outside
Bunia. Aid workers and human rights observers fear that vast human
rights abuses are taking place across Ituri province.
MONUC is "a long, bad story," said Francois Grignon, the Central
Africa director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based
Details of the killings in Mongbwalu - one of the most horrific
acts of violence against U.N. employees in the international body's
58-year history - are still emerging. The U.N. is investigating what
But in separate interviews with Knight Ridder, five U.N. military
observers with knowledge of what happened to Oran and Banda said
their murders could have been avoided. In fact, they said, only luck
prevented tribal fighters from butchering more helpless military
observers trapped in other remote areas.
All five spoke on condition of anonymity because they worried
about the repercussions they could face from the United Nations and
their own countries.
Vollot acknowledged that Oran and Banda for several days had
asked U.N. officials in Kisangani to be pulled out of Mongbwalu.
When asked why U.N. troops weren't sent to pick up the two
observers, Vollot said his command's Russian-made Mi-26 helicopters
were piloted by civilians. The Russian and Ukrainian pilots were
afraid to fly there, and the United Nations didn't want to put their
lives at risk, Vollot said.
And under U.N. rules, the ruling Lendu militia had to give
permission to land a helicopter in Mongbwalu. It also was unclear
which Lendu militia was in charge of the town, he said.
So his soldiers had to wait for clearance from the Lendu chief,
and only MONUC headquarters in Kinshasa, the capital, could
authorize a rescue operation.
"These are the rules of the United Nations," said Vollot.
The question in many minds is this: Why were the observers sent
in the first place?
For years, Mongbwalu was a volatile, violent place in the most
volatile, violent province of Congo. Six Red Cross workers were
brutally murdered in Ituri in 2001.
Neither Oran nor Banda spoke French, Swahili or any local
language. There were no armed U.N. peacekeepers in the area, and the
observers were sent with no weapons.
It was Oran's first mission. He had little experience in Africa,
let alone in a complex conflict such as Congo where military
allegiances often switch day to day, said those who knew him.
"They were so at risk. It was not prudent for two milobs
(military observers) to be sent with no force protection to a place
which was known to be violent for years," said Nigel Pearson, the
medical coordinator in Bunia for Medair, a relief agency.
"It was naive of MONUC. They weren't fully aware of the
complexities of the situation."
The U.N. military observers agree. Several were sent in teams of
four to other remote parts of Ituri at the same time as Oran and
Banda in April. They were urged to go quickly with little
preparation, they said. And after they arrived they received little
attention from MONUC officials, they said.
"After we got there, they forgot us. Nobody told us what we had
to do there," said another U.N. military observer. "I didn't even
know which group was Hema and which was Lendu."
At the time, MONUC needed to have a strong presence in Ituri,
said the observers. The Ugandan army, which occupied the province,
was leaving in accordance with a multinational peace pact. MONUC was
expected to fill the security vacuum.
"The U.N. was very pressured to find a solution to the Congo
war," said a third U.N. military observer. "They sent observers too
soon to a situation where we can't do our work."
On May 8, that became clear. With the Ugandans gone, clashes
between Hema and Lendu militias had broken out all over the
province. Oran and Banda called MONUC's offices in Kisangani asking
to be evacuated, said a fourth U.N. military observer.
But it was unclear who was responsible for the observers. For the
next four days, phone calls were exchanged among Kisangani, Bunia
and Kinshasa about getting clearance to evacuate Oran and Banda.
"There was a lot of confusion," said the U.N. military observer.
Meanwhile, other U.N. military observers in other parts of Ituri
also wanted to be evacuated. Many had to wait several days, too.
Some ended up escaping on their own across the Ugandan border. Lendu
militias intimidated other observers for days and accused them of
spying for the Hemas.
In one instance, an observer had a gun pointed at his head. Armed
fighters surrounded other observers, threatening to kill them.
"What happened to the two observers could have happened to me,"
said one observer, shaking his head.
The last telephone call from Oran and Banda was on May 13.
That was the day the United Nations believes they were killed.
"Everyone is to blame, starting from the guy who planned the
operation," said the fourth U.N. military observer.
On Wednesday, MONUC held a memorial service for Oran and Banda in
Kinshasa. Senior representatives of all 15 members of the U.N.
Security Council, who are here on a fact-finding mission, attended