SA soldiers ‘turned refugees away’

2013-05-26 14:00

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But Monusco says a military base is not safe to house refugees because it can be a target

Terrified refugees from the heavy fighting that erupted between government forces and rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this week spent hours on Monday outside a South African army base begging in vain for shelter while mortar explosions and gunshots were heard a few kilometres away.

Simone Schlindwein, a journalist for the German daily Tageszeitung, told City Press she was shocked by the way South African soldiers treated people outside their base after state soldiers of the DRC and the notorious M23 rebel group exchanged fire early on Monday.

She said the fighting started on Monday at about 4am and refugees started arriving at the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) base, Munigi, during the course of the morning.

Munigi is on the outskirts of Goma.

When she arrived there at 3pm, some of them told her the South African soldiers had refused to let them in despite the obvious danger they were facing.

Schlindwein said: “A South African soldier with a blue UN cap only opened the peephole of the base’s gate when I knocked there. He told me they didn’t want the people at the base and I must tell them to go away.”

The group of displaced civilians, most of them women and children, gathered outside the base while fighting raged around the town of Mutahu, only 5km away.

City Press learnt from a second source that for most of Monday – when the conflict was at its fiercest – a large group of civilians was present outside the base.

According to the UN, about 20 soldiers from both forces were killed in this week’s fighting, while at least three civilians died and 10 were wounded when a mortar exploded in a residential neighbourhood in Goma on Thursday.

It is standard practice for Monusco, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, to allow civilians into military bases temporarily during armed clashes.

In November last year, refugees were given protection in the very same Munigi base when M23 troops stormed Goma, but this time they could not rely on the South African soldiers for protection.

Said Schlindwein: “Munigi is the first place of safety that people reach when they flee on foot from the area north of Goma. They came here because they received help here last year, but now they feel the UN has let them down.”

Monusco denies the South Africans were in the wrong. Alex Essoume, a Monusco spokesperson in Goma, said: “Monusco peacekeeping troops took care of the people and ensured their safety by taking them to the nearest refugee camp. A military base is not the safest place to house civilians because it can be a target for attacks.”

Captain Brian Masango, the SANDF’s spokesperson in Goma, said civilians were always welcome in their base, but there were reasons why they were not admitted on Monday.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon visited Goma this week. He said the UN’s new intervention brigade, which may confront rebel forces directly and in which South Africa will play a key role, will only be ready to be deployed in a month or two.

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