How a U.N. Drone Crashed in Congo and Was Promptly Forgotten

An FP special report from the front lines of the flailing U.N. effort to use drones to save lives in a war-ravaged stretch of eastern Africa.

Congo Drones

NYIRAGONGO TERRITORY, Democratic Republic of the Congo — On a cloudy October morning last year, an unarmed United Nations drone on a surveillance mission over eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo crashed and burned in farmland just north of the city of Goma. Local residents quickly gathered at the crash site, where U.N. officials later retrieved some of the drone’s pieces, including its black box, radar, and camera system. But its engine and tail arm — clearly emblazoned with U.N. insignia — stayed in a resident’s home in the poor territory for months, and other debris remained untouched in a field whose owner could no longer afford to farm.

It was one of five drones — each roughly the size of a compact car — used by MONUSCO, the United Nations’ $1.4 billion stabilization mission in Congo, where civil war has killed more than 5 million Congolese since 1996. Congo is the first nation where the U.N. has made surveillance drones a permanent part of its peacekeeping missions, and the unmanned aircraft are deployed to track rebel movements, monitor road conditions, and provide intelligence to help protect Congolese from the kind of summary executions and mass rapes that most recently plagued the country’s east during a 20-month period between 2012 and 2013. What they are not used for is actually killing any of those rebels. The United States and allies like Israel regularly use drones to kill enemies, but the unmanned craft are coming into widespread use far from the battlefields of places like Pakistan and Yemen. Here, in Congo, they have become a vital unarmed tool for trying to save lives, not trying to take them.

But to the residents of the community where the drone crashed, the wreckage — and the U.N.’s subsequent failure to reimburse those affected by the crash — symbolized something else: the U.N.’s seemingly cavalier disregard for the well-being and livelihoods of the very people the world body claims to be safeguarding.

Faustin Zabayo, who runs Nyiragongo’s youth council, said it’s because U.N. officials in Congo “don’t actually have the goodwill to help the families that they haven’t come back to get the drone.”

“They know if they come, we will ask them to pay,” Zabayo said in June as he walked me through the debris-littered farmland where the surveillance aircraft went down.

* * *

Among many Congolese, the suspicion for MONUSCO goes far beyond the drone crash, even though the mission’s responsbiility is to accompany the Congolese military in its efforts to dismantle rebel groups there. Charles Bambara, MONUSCO’s director of public information, told me through e-mail that despite “difficult circumstances,” MONUSCO remains committed to protecting civilians both through military operations and community engagement, which includes a reintegration program for former rebels.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo was established in 1999, but a succession of armed groups nonetheless has continued to threaten the country’s eastern region. MONUSCO, in its current form, replaced the previous peacekeeping operation, MONUC, in 2010. Congolese accuse the peacekeepers of tearing up already bumpy roads with their massive white trucks, acting too rowdy after heavy drinking at local nightclubs, and, in some cases, frequenting prostitution camps. Bambara said that reports of sexual exploitation have declined in recent years and that the U.N. has implemented prevention programs and “a zero-tolerance of driving under the influence of alcohol.” But colloquially, the peacekeepers are still known as “the tourist army” — wealthy, light-skinned foreigners who crowd the region’s muddy streets.

In October 2014, the drone crashed in a field partly owned by Berna Bahunde Mukagatare, a 55-year-old widow who depends on her crops of beans and cassava to help support her eight children and 29 grandchildren. Some of them share her tiny home, with its dirt floors, in Nyiragongo, a poor, rural territory of rolling hills and red dirt roads just north of Goma, the capital of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province. The area surrounding Mukagatare’s home was at the heart of the Rwandan-backed M23 rebellion that, despite the massive U.N. presence nearby, killed thousands and displaced more than 800,000 between 2012 and 2013.

In Congo, women often farm the fields, but men tend to control their finances. As a widow, Mukagatare told me, she did not have the means to ask neighbors for a loan to replant crops damaged by both the drone and the crowd that trampled her crops while examining the wreckage after the crash. So she waited for MONUSCO to pay its promised compensation for her loss, which she planned to use to buy seeds to replant for the next harvest.

But the payment never came, and Mukagatare’s debris-littered field became overgrown, costing what she estimated was hundreds of dollars’ worth of lost crops. She survived financially by continuing to farm another small property she owns nearby.

“I’m a widow; I don’t have a husband,” Mukagatare told me as she shelled dried beans outside her Nyiragongo home in June. “It’s because I didn’t have someone to advocate for me that I haven’t been paid, but I wanted them to pay me back.”

The U.N.’s failure to collect the parts of the drone eight months after the crash “came as a surprise” to British Lt. Col. Matt White, chief of MONUSCO’s unmanned aerial systems program, who joined the unit six months after the drone went down. In a June conversation at MONUSCO’s headquarters in Goma, White told me the U.N. was aware of the crash, but he believed the debris already had been cleaned up.

After I advised him that the drone parts remained in the village — including next to the water supply in one resident’s home — White encouraged U.N. personnel to retrieve the pieces, which they did in July. He also pressured the U.N. claims department to pay $515 in compensation for the damaged crops. Zabayo confirmed in an August phone call that Mukagatare had indeed been paid back, through a male intermediary who had filed the initial claim.

“MONUSCO is a big beast, which is highly bureaucratic at times and for good reasons,” White told me in June. “But the fact it’s taken so long is disappointing on a number of different levels.”

* * *

MONUSCO’s drone program was launched in late 2013, and the contract costs the U.N. more than $13 million annually. The surveillance planes are provided by Selex ES, an Italian manufacturer that holds the contract with the U.N. and provides most personnel through its American subsidiary, Selex Galileo. Selex ES belongs to Finmeccanica, a larger aerospace and defense company based in Italy.

Selex ES declined to offer much detail on the October crash, but a spokesman for the company said an investigation was “performed to the satisfaction of both parties [the U.N. and Selex], and all necessary adjustments were put in place to tighten security requirements for flight operations.”

The midsize Falco drones are not built to carry weapons, but they nonetheless have been the target of protests by some human rights and aid organizations operating in Congo. In July 2014 they signed a statement to reject a U.N. offer to surveil NGO projects; the groups claimed that the U.N.’s offer of such assistance was a “blurring of the lines” between military and humanitarian efforts in the region.

White and his team walk a fine line between protecting civilians without risking the safety of U.N. equipment. The drones over Nyiragongo are able to fly as high as 18,000 feet above main sea level, but also go “as low as they need to,” White said, and are often seen or heard by the local population.

The more than 22,000 MONUSCO peacekeepers, soldiers, observers, and policemen living in Congo are tasked with protecting civilians from what White called an “alphabet soup” of various rebel groups. M23 rebels have been defeated in large part due to U.N. efforts, including a brigade established in 2013 that is authorized to conduct offensive missions instead of merely defending civilians. Still, U.N. peacekeepers remain very much at risk; two were killed by rebels while on patrol in May.

In November 2014, shortly after the crash in Nyiragongo, two of the remaining four drones were moved 200 miles north of MONUSCO’s base in Goma to the city of Bunia. The purpose of the move was to better monitor intensifying rebel activity near Bunia, specifically in the city of Béni, which is under continued siege by the Allied Democratic Forces, a small Islamist extremist faction. White said the drones are also surveilling the FRPI, or Forces de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri, another rebel group based closer to Bunia.

The drones, which fly at different heights depending on their missions, take live video that is streamed back to operators working on the ground. With the drones piloted and maintained by a small group of Americans and Italians, White said his team can “make sure people know we are watching them sometimes, and other times clearly we can observe from a more covert distance and altitude.”

The U.N. prefers to call the drones unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and Bambara noted a few instances when “the UAVs were instrumental” to peacekeepers, citing their usefulness in locating rebel camps in Ituri province. In one case, he said, “UAVs helped MONUSCO undertake rescue efforts of a sinking passenger ferry in Lake Kivu last year and saved many lives.”

But Konstantin Kakaes, a fellow with New America, who spent time researching the drone program in Goma earlier this year, said it remains murky just how useful the drones really are to the peacekeeping mission.

In a phone interview, Kakaes said he believes the program lacks much ability to analyze the intelligence it gathers. But even if the results are limited, he said, spending $13 million on surveillance from an annual budget of more than $1 billion is well worth the U.N.’s investment for intelligence gathered by the drones.

“It does increase their awareness; it does give them another source of information, which is a good thing,” he said. “But on the other hand, it really doesn’t appear that they’re doing much with that information.”

Selex ES eventually replaced the drone that crashed in October. Although the U.N. currently has five drones in Congo, White’s team is currently only permitted to operate one at a time, usually for a total of 10 hours a day, six days a week. That’s far from ideal, White admitted, because such a limited operation cannot effectively track movement by rebel groups whose travel patterns are often unpredictable. Moreover, three of the drones sit in storage in Goma because MONUSCO does not have the funding to operate ground control stations from both Bunia and Goma.

And those obstacles do not even account for the region’s consistently cloudy and rainy weather, which frequently grounds the drones, or the thick canopies of bush and the large volcano, which make it harder for the aircraft’s cameras to capture useful imagery. The weather challenges differ greatly from the dust storms and extreme heat that White encountered while serving in Afghanistan.

The drone that crashed in October, for example, took off in a rainstorm. The U.N. knew the weather that day might be prohibitive, “but they thought the risk was justified by the things they wanted to see,” Kakaes said.

MONUSCO hopes to address some of these concerns if it is able to secure more resources for the surveillance program from U.N. headquarters in New York, an appeal that White said is ongoing and could soon provide additional funding.

That appeal shouldn’t be too difficult to win. The U.N. seems willing to aggressively pursue the use of drones as a tool for peacekeeping both in Congo and elsewhere. In February, a U.N. panel led by the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Jane Holl Lute, urged other U.N. military operations to invest in drones.

Aerial visualization is “a capacity every mission should have with very few exceptions,” Lute said in February.

Outside Congo, Dutch and Swedish troops on peacekeeping missions in Mali began providing surveillance drones for operations there, and the government of the Central African Republic also approved drones to assist in U.N. operations there.

South Sudan, on the other hand, has refused U.N. offers of drone surveillance, claiming that it would jeopardize the country’s military operations to have troops and bases photographed from above. South Sudan has been in a state of deadly civil war since shortly after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. But speaking to Voice of America in June, presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny questioned why the U.N. would even suggest such a tactic. “There is no al Qaeda in South Sudan. There is no terrorist,” he said. “Why do they want to bring drones to South Sudan?” And at U.N. hearings, Russia and China have expressed concerns about how the collected information would be shared, and with whom.

* * *

Back in Congo, local suspicion about the effectiveness of all of MONUSCO’s programs — including the drones — has less to do with the programs themselves and more to do with MONUSCO’s haphazard interactions with Congolese residents. White said the U.N. spreads the word about its drone operations in press releases and contact with local leaders, but according to Kakaes, U.N. outreach to Congolese “is not where it should be.”

Separately, a humanitarian-aid researcher in the region said many Congolese believe MONUSCO would be far more successful if its peacekeepers were on better terms with residents. “I was recently in a place where you had 25 elite forces stationed in a very volatile area, and nobody speaks French and they don’t engage the community,” said the researcher, who was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke to me on condition of anonymity.

And the tension between residents and peacekeepers in Goma is palpable. Even Congolese vendors whose stands line the street outside MONUSCO’s Goma headquarters told me they consider the mission’s effectiveness to be highly questionable. “I would rate them at most a 5 out of 10,” one vendor who declined to be identified told me in June.

Still, White said he doubted most Congolese want details about the drone program, beyond knowing that it is there to look for armed groups. “If it doesn’t change their daily life, I’m not quite sure they’d be that interested,” he said.

But Kakaes said that civilians in Goma surprised him by knowing enough about the drone program to tell him they “wished the drones were armed.” Although the U.N. insists it has no plans to deploy armed drones, some Congolese would prefer that the drones were there to neutralize rebels who threaten Congolese stability. Kakaes noted, however, that “public opinion would turn very quickly” if innocent civilians were accidentally killed by armed drones and said he himself does not support the arming of drones in Congo.

“Many Congolese I spoke with were aware that the U.S. has been using drones in targeted killings,” Kakaes said. “So they wondered why drones can’t be used to attack nefarious armed groups in the Congo.”

And residents who have had their lives shattered by rebels whom the U.N. has yet to defeat told me the MONUSCO mission is, in fact, constantly on their minds.

In a camp in Bulengo for internally displaced people (IDPs) who have been forced from their homes, 61-year-old Ernestin Nzamuye recounted his family’s escape from rebels who seized and burned his home in Katoyi. More than 11,000 families were living in Bulengo when he arrived three years ago. Now, just over 1,000 remain — an overwhelming sign of progress in moving internally displaced people in Congo back home.

But Nzamuye’s hometown in Masisi territory remains unstable. And like most Congolese living in Bulengo, he has little hope of soon leaving the camp, located an hour outside Goma. And so, he said, a 16-year U.N. peacekeeping mission that has proved incapable of keeping the peace is reason enough to demand change.

“We see MONUSCO with their many cars and their many soldiers, and yet we are getting old in the IDP camps,” Nzamuye said. “We don’t understand.”

This reporting was made possible by a generous grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Photo Credit: Siobhán O’Grady/Foreign Policy

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