Christmas came early on Monday for a group of South African soldiers deployed as part of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Father Christmas came in the guise of Lieutenant General Rinus van Rensburg, chief of defence corporate staff, and a host of other high ranking South African National Defence Force (SANDF) officers on a goodwill visit to boost the morale of soldiers deployed outside South Africa’s borders over the festive season.
The first stop of the tour, that would see the top brass of the SANDF visiting troops deployed in the DRC, Burundi and the Central African Republic, was in Kamina in the eastern DRC.
A group of 36 Air Force pilots and crew are stationed there to give tactical support to an Indian battalion deployed to keep the peace in the area.
A spread of snacks and food from home was laid out for the soldiers and presents, paid for by private companies, in the form of picnic rucksacks.
”We are grateful for the sacrifice you make being away from your families over the festive season,” Van Rensburg told the troops.
He said a recent flare-up of violence in the eastern DRC should not deter the South Africans, who are part of the more than 18 000 strong United Nations force in the country.
”You are working to ensure a democratic and effective government here and to ensure stability in the Great Lakes region,” Van Rensburg said.
Among the South African troops in Kamina is Lieutenant Phetoga Molawa (21) who recently became the first black South African female helicopter pilot in the SANDF.
For Molawa, spending December in another country was exciting as it was also her first foreign deployment.
”It is precisely the thing any SA Air Force chopper pilot wishes for,” she said.
”It is very good exposure, to see how other defence forces work and learning about their cultures and way of doing things.”
Molawa said the locals were initially very surprised to see her flying.
”They point and ask the crew if it’s me flying ‘that big helicopter’ and don’t believe it when they find out it is,” she said.
The South Africans are from 15 Squadron and 19 Squadron from Durban and Louis Trichardt respectively.
They operate the two South African Oryx helicopters painted in white UN colours over an area of 1 000 square kilometres where the Indian troops are deployed.
”It is great flying here,” says Lieutenant Colonel Alec Kitley. He has been on several deployments, including in neighbouring Burundi.
The visiting group will be in Burundi on Tuesday where South Africans are the only foreign troops remaining to keep the peace after the UN shut down its mission in December last year. – Sapa