From cannibalism to cricket - all in a day's work

“At least they have stopped eating other people, so our work here is done,” a young South African Air Force pilot remarks casually at Kamina in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Katanga province.

He is one of a small group of South African pilots and crew stationed at the Kamina Air Base, built in the 1950s by Belgium when the DRC was still known as the Belgian Congo.

These days, most flying from the base is done by two South African Oryx helicopters, painted in white, with large United Nations letters stencilled on the sides. The choppers also sport door-mounted 7,62mm machine guns.

Not that the machine guns have been used much; relative peace has returned to Katanga. Even reports of cannibalism, to which the UN took strong exception, have died down.

For the UN peacekeepers, most days are spent on maintaining their camps, military parades and challenging each other to various sports.
And when it comes to taking on the Indian peacekeepers in cricket, the South African troops have found themselves on a consistent losing streak.

“We have not won a game yet,” chuckles Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Barnard, commander of the South African contingent in Kamina.

In fairness, the South Africans number only 36 while the Indian battalion, whose members the South Africans ferry around by air, plus their support staff number about 1 000.

If the South Africans want to win a game, they will have to do so soon—they will be packing up in the coming weeks. They are to be moved to Nord-Kivu, where fighting has continued even after the DRC’s first free and fair UN-monitored election in 2006.

The two South African helicopters and their crew are needed in the volatile region to give impetus to UN efforts to stop the violence.

The South Africans will find themselves amongst fellow countrymen in Nord-Kivu, as an South African army engineering company is deployed there catering to the UN’s engineering needs.

A South African infantry battalion is also the reserve for the UN’s whole eastern division. It is called upon to engage combatants when things get too “sticky” for the rest of the UN forces. In the past few months, they have been in “contact” engagements at least twice a week, a senior military source said.

Demonstrating growing UN trust, South African men and women in uniform make up one of the largest contingents in the 17 000-plus UN DRC force known as Monuc.

The first South African deployment of 150 technical personnel was in April 2001; it now stands at 1 186 troops and, besides the infantry, includes officers for Monuc headquarters, medics, military police and firefighting personnel.

Burundi

Across the border in Burundi, the South Africans are hoping to finish what they started.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) first deployed troops to Burundi in November of 2001 to provide a small VIP protection force for parliamentarians, while the rest of the battalion served as support in case of renewed hostilities.

South Africa was the first country to commit troops to an African Union peacekeeping force trying to quell the tiny Central African country’s civil war, which started in 1993 and saw ethnic killings of both Hutus and Tutsis.

In June 2004, the AU troops, to which South Africa was the largest contributor, donned blue helmets when the UN took over peacekeeping duties. In December 2006, following a successful election the year before, the UN ceased its operations.

But the South Africans are still there with 743 troops keeping an eye on the situation. The last remaining rebel group, the Palipehutu-FNL, is refusing to return to negotiations facilitated by South Africa’s Safety and Security Minister, Charles Nqakula.

“It is a political process in which we do not take part ... we only get involved when it’s a military situation,” says Colonel Hein Visser, who served as the South African task force contingent commander in Burundi last year.

However, the unfinished political talks meant the South Africans could not withdraw from Burundi last December as hoped.

Besides the DRC and Burundi, the SANDF also has soldiers deployed in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Central African Republic (CAR), Southern Sudan, Uganda and Nepal.

In the CAR, many South African troops are not wearing the blue helmet of the UN or the green one of the AU—they are helping with teaching.

“It’s something different ... it’s a new adventure,” says Brigadier General Jan Hougaard, chief liaison officer for the CAR mission.

The SANDF is also providing military assistance to the CAR Defence Force and training senior officers, while South African Special Forces officers help train local military to deal with instability spilling over from Sudan’s Darfur region.—Sapa

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