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.