Africa : The word immediately spews forth a deluge of images in the mind; images of verdant forests and endless savannas, bountiful wildlife, statuesque Black tribals people, abject backwardness & poverty, terrible unrest and inhuman violence. A reprehensible and unsavory reaction, but ultimately and unavoidably true for most parts of the continent. Its title of 'The Dark Continent' continues to remain somehow apt and indubitably earned. It is one of the great misfortunes of our world that this continent continues to have so much of unrest. It seems unable to come out of this vicious vortex of recurring and endless cycle of natural and man made disasters, and the concomitant human tragedies. In this recurring cycle, the most recent human tragedy of civil war in Democratic Republic of the Congo forced the United Nations to send in an international peace keeping composite body named MONUC in 1999.
A resurgent India was committed to send its military forces for MONUC. Consequently, Indian Aviation Contingent-I (IAC-I) was inducted at Goma (with four Mi-25 attack helicopters and five Mi-17 utility helicopters) in 2003 as a part of this mission. The contribution of the Indian Aviation Contingent was so exemplary, that the UN approached for another aviation contingent from India. Thus, Indian Aviation Contingent-II ( IAC-II ) with its fleet of six night capable Mi-17 helicopters at Kavumu Airport in Bukavu and four night upgraded Mi-35 helicopters at Goma, along side IAC-I was inducted in Feb 2005.
Though it was not the first time that Indian Air Force was fielding a contingent abroad, it was certainly the biggest, with 10 heptrs, 36 vehicles and a strength of 285 personnel. The MoU between the UN and Govt of India this time necessitated a fully self-sustained environment in terms of electricity, water supply, communications, transport and any other possible requirements. It was indeed a massive task at hand. The logistics for the contingent were packed in 56 air and sea containers and it took a formidable effort of 13 sorties by super transporter AN-124 to transfer the ten helicopters, contingent equipment and self-sustainable assets.
The first batch, aptly referred to as "The Pioneers" had the daunting task of preparing a mini India on African soil. They had to work under the heat and torrential rain, obviating discomforts to make a home away from home. The MES element comprising of six personnel spent many a night without any sleep or rest. Starting from the 'Bhoomi Poojan', levelling of ground, laying the foundation and erecting the tents for initial shelter, construction of messes, ablution units, securing personnel and UN property were some of the basic requirements. All this was in addition to performing branch duties to keep the 'Bukavu Titans' flag flying high. The journey had been breathtaking, indeed. Besides, the basic amenities like a telephone exchange, satellite TV, gymnasium, sports complex, community hall, place of worship, etc all were created later. It was because of the efforts of this team that today the Indian 'Tri-Colour' is flying with pride, upholding our national values in the foreign land and international environment. The work ethos was so aptly described in the words of the then Contingent Commander, now Air Cmde AC Bharali VM (Retd), "Keep the UN flag flying high which will ensure the 'Tri Colour' flies high".
The first rotation of IAC-II Contingent arrived at Bukavu on 26 Feb 06 and became operational in Mar 06. The successive Rotations 2 and 3 had commenced their journey for MONUC on 29 Mar 07 and 29 Mar 08 respectively. During the 2 Rotation, political negotiations with armed rebels were at a frantic pace. MONUC requirements increased at Kalemie base in Tanganyika region. A new detachment was necessitated at Kalemie which is located 218 nm south of Kavumu. This led to the induction of 18 additional air warriors at Bukavu / Kalemie in Oct 07, raising the strength of IAC-II to 303 personnel. This additional manpower is now co-existing at the main campus at Bukavu and supporting the MONUC's cause. Despite multifarious constraints and ever evolving scenarios, the successive rotations continued their bit of endeavours and produced noticeable changes both at the workplace and living areas. These changes included the erection of pre-fabricated shelters for almost all offices and living accommodation, general improvement in the landscape and assets building for better quality of life. These have furthered the spirit of jingoism and added feathers to the cap of IAC-II over a period of time. A closer look, to discover the existing contingent, through the capabilities and capacities of its three main pillars of strengths (Operations, Maintenance and Administration), would be in order.
The Security Council Resolutions 1565 (2004) of 01 Oct 04, 1592 (2004) of 30 Mar 05, 1596 (2005) of 18 Apr 05 and 1621 (2005) of 06 Sep 05 defines the specific actions that the Commanders are to take, if they are judged necessary including use of force to achieve the aim of the Mission. The Military Planning Service of UN Department of Peace Keeping Operations further issued a comprehensive document on 14 Feb 06 containing the entire rules which govern the use of force, formally known as the ROE. While the former category of resolutions was pre-dominantly defensive in nature, the ROE allows for the potential need for offensive action, if necessary. It complies with the international legal principles of proportionality, the minimum use of force and the minimum collateral damage. Air Warriors of the IAC-II have always maintained a balance between the use of force and 'Winning the Hearts and Minds (WHAM)' of the local populace.
MONUC is one of the largest and most robust peace keeping operations ever undertaken by the UN. The Aviation Contingents are by far the key elements in the arsenal of MONUC in achieving its mandate of maintaining peace in this huge country, the second largest in Africa. The tasks required by UN from the Mi-35 Sqn were to provide armed escort, fire support, anti-armour support, reconnaissance, information gathering and MEDEVAC, all these both by day as well as night. The Mi-17 utility helicopters were to undertake tasks including troop induction, cargo carriage, under slung operations, SAR, CASEVAC and MEDEVAC, reconnaissance and surveillance, both by day and night.
Congo vindicated the popular image portrayed in books of yore like Tintin, Tarzan and Phantom to more recent popular movies like 'Congo', one of the 'Wild' places on earth. This was what the Contingent had expected and were prepared for thick virgin triple-canopy forests with unbroken cover, the Broccoli Forest, in which an aircraft could be swallowed without a trace; a country with hardly any road network. However, there were surprises too the troubled Eastern Congo, has several large fresh water lakes, large tracts of grass land, extensive 'Slash and burn' farming (back home our own 'Jhoom' cultivation in the East), mountains and volcanoes towering beyond 2500m- 3000m above sea level.
Though straddling the equator, the elevated attitudes in this part of DRC ensures a salubrious climate throughout the year, interestingly despite high relative humidity. The helicopter aviators in IAF are well trained and have a wide exposure of operations in similar weather conditions in our Indian region. However, it is a different ball game altogether for them here. Unpredictable, rapid in development and movement and highly inimical to aviation, that's how a Congo Veteran would describe the weather. Most of them would blanch white, if reminded about the nasty surprises thrown by the vagaries of weather such as Thunderstorm, squalls, low clouds and severe turbulence. In this 'Equatorial Wet' type of climate, Bukavu and Goma enjoy mean max and min temperatures of 250 C and 130 C respectively, with an average annual rainfall of 2000 mm.
As can be appreciated from the terrain, weather and ground realities, all the odds were stacked heavily against safe aviation, what to speak of military aviation operations. This fact is well evidenced by the large number of accidents, mostly fatal, which regularly occur in DR Congo among its civil aviation sector. The Indian Aviation Contingents stand tall and shining in this arena too, their record untarnished by any accident. Emergencies have occurred aplenty, but professional and skilful handling of the Indian aircrew and supporting staff always saved the day. To operate at these elevated altitudes, most of the times out of single engine performance graphs, over such inhospitable and rugged terrain, with inimical and unknown ground situation, unpredictable and rapidly changing weather patterns and with few and far force landing field, entails courage of a distinctly higher magnitude. Undertaking sustained and successful military operations safely has placed these veterans in a different league.
Some of the most interesting and enriching experiences for our Air Warriors have been the interactions with military staff from other countries like Uruguay, Bolivia, Morocco etc. It also gave a rare opportunity of interacting closely with military personnel of our immediate neighbours like Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and Nepal. In addition, the civilian staffs of UN, who form a mosaic of citizens from various nations, also provided insight into various cultures.
It was in the month of Sep 2004 that this oldest Helicopter Squadron of IAF located in the hot yet serene environs of Rajasthan learnt of the likely move to DRC. Equipped with Mi-35 upgrade helicopters, they were finally inducted in Feb 05 to endow MONUC with the much needed night fighting capability. The oldest helicopter unit of the IAF was given this singular honour and thus became the first squadron of IAF to be deployed on foreign shores.
The squadron soon saw their first live action on 30 Jun 2005 in the Ituri Bde AOR, where they had to open fire to help extricate beleaguered UN troops of Bangladesh and Pakistan battalions who had been ambushed by the militia. Since then, this squadron has been employed in more than a hundred Operations all over the length and breadth of Eastern DRC and have always displayed high degree of professionalism. The notable ones among these have been 'Op Songolo', where in offensive engagement by the squadron delivered a telling blow to the militia that had laid siege on a section of Pakistani APCs. This operation also saw the first ever night area domination mission being flown in DRC. In 'Op Falcon Sweep' during Jul-Aug 05, the helicopters of this squadron escorted a formation of more than ten Mi-17 helicopters to deploy troops for Cordon and Search operations against FDLR in South Kivu.
'Op Eastern Eagle' during Oct 05 in Ituri region saw the squadron in action along with Guatemalan Special Forces and Uruguayan Riverine unit to address illegal arms smuggling through Lake Albert. Firebirds were also instrumental in getting rid of the FDLR militia operating in Virunga National Park as part of Op North Nexus. Through extensive and effective show of force and area domination over remote locales in the hinterland, they greatly assisted the peaceful conduct of landmark elections in DRC in 2006. The most notable contribution from this squadron came during 'Op Sake' in Nov 06. In a swift move, a large number of disgruntled soldiers of the Govt army 'FARDC', led by one of the most powerful warlords in the region, General Nkunda took control of Sake, a town 25 km from Goma, and made deep inroads towards Goma. With the imminent threat of Goma falling to rebels, the squadron was tasked to spearhead the defence of this strategically critical town, the HQ of North Kivu Brigade. The ensuing operations saw the attack helicopters in action incessantly by day and night for four days. This squadron successfully engaged the militia and their command centres with rockets and guns, in the face of a sustained fire by the rebels with small arms, mortars and RPGs. This timely and effective attack crippled the rebel assault and resulted in securing Goma and regaining control of Sake. The stellar contribution of squadron has been well appreciated by MONUC and civilians, winning many a plaudits for IAF.
The latest action this attack helicopter squadron saw was in Oct 08 when Rebel forces led by Gen Nkunda began a determined and well planned advance on Goma town in Eastern DRC. By 27 Oct, rebels had overwhelmed FARDC Brigade HQ located 20 Km North of Goma and directly threatened the town. With situation so critically poised, Mi-35s flew a total of 14 sorties and 21 hrs, providing cover to the MONUC and FARDC and halting the advance of CNDP. The squadron fired 84 rockets, often in difficult circumstances, under continuous retaliatory fire from CNDP. All this was achieved without any battle damage and ensuring flight safety. The effectiveness of the Firebirds is borne out by the fact that after the ceasefire, the first military demand made by Gen Nkunda was an immediate cessation of Mi-35 Ops against his forces. Through their professionalism and dedication to the cause of peace in Congo, the Firebirds have earned the gratitude and respect of MONUC, keeping IAF and the country's flag always flying high in this international arena. This is reflected in the number of commendations that the Sqn personnel have earned from Force Cdr, Div Cdr and Bde Cdr in MONUC. The Squadron has an enviable record of more than 3200 hrs of accident and incident free employment in more than a hundred operations with nil fratricide and collateral damage. It has enabled them to build an effective deterrence for the militia. It is said that Congolese militia are afraid of only two things - God and the attack helicopter. They have aptly nicknamed the attack helicopter 'Sura Mbaya' in Swahili language meaning 'The Ugly Face'.
In the last quarter of 2004, immediate and effective communication of MONUC forces to remote areas of DRC was the need of the hour. The inaccessible terrain with poor infrastructure of roads and non-existing communication lines only strengthened the demand for transportation by air. Hostile elements and presence of rebel groups precluded use of civilian effort. The flexibility of launching air effort by night was one of the pre-requisites and IAF did have this unique capability. In Feb 05, six Mi-17 medium-lift, multi-role and Night Vision capable utility helicopters were inducted in Bukavu. The Squadron was armed by the air warriors from the time honoured helicopter squadrons of IAF. The pride of IAF had one common goal i.e. keep Peace in the strife torn nation.
It was no surprise, that from the very first day, the Squadron was at home! As they spread their wings in the pristine locale of God's own land, the sheer majesty was a cynosure of the entire Peace keeping force in the area. The flying tasks ranged from mundane passenger and VIP flights to exciting SHBO missions, search & rescues and air dominations. Within a week of induction into the area, a SHBO mission was flown over the stronghold of rebel forces. Op 'Falcon Sweep' had thus signaled that the helicopters had come to roost for a long time. It also demonstrated a show of strength and resolve in the remote and inaccessible areas in The shortest time frames.
It provided the long desired fillip to MONUC forces. Soon, these op missions became a routine affair. Not once the painstaking planning and intelligence gathering was sacrificed. The landing of rapid action force numbering 380 in a compressed time frame and at unknown zone was a sterling example of the professional ethos. Surgical precision and attention to details ensued that the missions were completed without an incident or accident. The region is volatile and literally sitting on a powder keg. Periodic violations of the peace accord by rebels have always been the spark for wide spread fighting, looting, arson and wanton killing for the sake of revenge, vendetta and many other intangibles.
In one such recent string of hostilities during August 08, the fragile peace accord was almost shred to pieces by the rebel forces lead by Gen Nkunda. Almost a decade long progress in normalizing situation in the country was jeopardized. The rebels captured a few posts in the Minova- Numbi axis. The SOS message was inevitable and the helicopters swooped in support of the Govt Armed Forces (FARDC) under Operation code named 'South Shrike'. Undaunted and swift, the helicopters deployed the Pakistan Battalion in the area amidst cross fire, inclement weather and under fog of war scenario. Incidentally, supporting troops of Pakistan in the area is also one of the 'first's' in contradiction to affairs back home.
In another recent event, the helicopters were quick to rise to the occasion. On 01 Sep 08, a fixed wing was overdue at Bukavu airport. The SAR mission was launched to rescue the ill fated passengers was blunted by weather god. Recovery of bodies and all the material evidence could provide inputs to establish the sequence of events that led to the unfortunate accident. The landing spots on a wind-blown, turbulent 10,000 ft AMSL ridge was a challenge in itself. There was a sense of great achievement and satisfaction among the supporting rescuers from South Africa, that the job was well done with no injuries to any personnel. It spoke volumes of professionalism and resolve of the contingent.The Hawks have amassed over 5000 hrs accident free flying since induction in 2005. More than 5000 passengers and 2,50,000 kgs of cargo have been transported in the hostile environment of DRC. The Squadron is actively and continuously involved in some of the most challenging op scenarios such as Op South Sable, Op South Santlino, Op South Sailboard and Op South Shrike. It significantly facilitates the peace keeping operations and achievement of the overall aim of the MONUC forces.
Administration activity in contingent environment is a multifarious and a demanding task primarily due to working in an international environment away from country and somewhat detached from the parent organisation. Recognition of this contingent's practice and philosophy of responsive and effective administration can be gauged from the fact that the MONUC international staff falls back on IAC-II for support during times of crisis. IAC-II has left an indelible impression on the minds of MONUC staff / Congolese Civilian Officials / NGOs and local populace both by its professional conduct as well as social interactions. The contingent also fulfils its responsibility towards Indian Diaspora by interacting with the large Indian community settled in DRC as well as by making them proud of ambience of Indian contingent in their region. The Administration at Bukavu is solely looked after by the Contingent itself. The Mi-35 element at Goma is also supported by IAC-I for some of the former's administrative requirements.
Since the inception of IAC-II, the Air Warriors had put in tireless efforts of bringing up their "Home away from home" at Bukavu and Goma. Progressively, through concerted efforts of successive rotations, both these locations boast about excellent infrastructure and offers an aesthetically pleasing look thus achieving the status.
The Indian contingent Camp at Bukavu is located near Kavumu airport, 40 Kms from Bukavu town on a rectangular plot of 275 X 73 m to which another plot of 100 x 70 m have been added recently. The practice of upgradation of infrastructure continued in present rotation too when the additional adjoining plot was obtained from UN for decongestion and space for Mi-35 detachment at Bukavu. This additional area has enchanced the ambience and quality of living area, accommodation and existing sports facilities. The rear side of the camp overlooks a lush green meadow. The view from living area is aptly called 'Valley View'. Various shades of green serve as a great stress busters and help in alleviating home sickness which is more pervasive than boredom. Similarly, the camp at Goma, in the backdrop of beautiful landscape of Nyiragongo volcano, offers a photogenic and heart warming view.
Security is yet another important aspect for a self sustained contingent. The poverty ridden condition of the locals makes anything available in the camp very lucrative and hence makes the camp more vulnerable to even petty thefts. The contingent has devised a three tier system for the internal security, which is looked after by contingent personnel at both the camps. The external security is the responsibility of Pakistani troops in Bukavu. As a result of good liaison with the local security agencies in Bukavu, additional deployment of Congolese policemen and army soldiers for external patrol has been made possible.
During the initial induction, the UN authorities had forewarned that the contingent would have to be self sufficient in all aspects for a field area deployment for the first six months. The initial induction set high standards in the setting up and organisation of an ideal military camp, albeit with tents and makeshift structures of plywood and corrugated sheets. The major engineering support services are provided primarily by the UN, but camp management is done by the small group of Army personnel from the Corps of Engrs. The first and second rotations further improved on that template, adding prefabricated accommodation for offices and Officers Men Complex. With the passage of time, the tent type temporary accommodation has transformed into re fabricated structures supplied by UN. The entire set of offices, accommodation for officers and majority of warrant ranks is in these structures. Besides, the contingent has also managed to get an additional 12 units of prefabs for the Mi-35 detachment at Bukavu. Decongestion of Personnel below Officer Rank (PBORs) accommodation has been achieved through expansion of camp area.
A strange new country, undercurrents of a hostile environment, frequent reports of rebel attacks and civil unrest, law and order incidents raising security concerns, distance from family and the concomitant home sickness; were facts enough to have a detrimental effect on even seasoned warriors. It was one of the great challenges to ensure that these stresses do not affect morale of the Air Warriors and a healthy and cordial environment could be maintained which was easier said than done. A multi-pronged approach had been undertaken time and again. In recent times, family groups have been made to provide informal forum to air warriors to share their joys, sorrows and concerns thereby assuaging their emotions. Lectures are organised regularly; recreational activities like games and sports, Gym, regular walks, picnics and outings are also planned routinely. The core strategy has been to keep the mind and body occupied and generate a feeling of well being through a sense of belonging, camaraderie and self-respect. Work hard and play harder the age old motto. Attractive prizes were tailored for Family Group Competitions factoring in health, fitness & sports, involvement and good conduct for all inclusive and all round improvement of both external and internal environment. A well stocked library is available in the contingent. Various Indian magazines are being procured through FPO albeit with protracted delay (Delhi-Mumbai-Goma- Bukavu). To keep abreast with current affairs, the EDP element of the contingent is utilizing the limited internet access and providing downloads of important news at vantage locations in form of 'Kivu News'. Library has also been recently upgraded into spacious hard walled 'corimec' accommodation. Contingent movie shows and tambola gatherings provide time tested indulgences. Cable TV network provided in each dwelling unit with 18 channels also helps keeping in touch with news and programmes of interest.
The Level I hospital is well equipped in providing comprehensive medical care and promotive, preventive and specific protection. The hospital also extends emergency medical services to the MONUC Civilian staff and members of other contingents as well as members and families of local Indian community. Two doctors and six medical assistants, in case of an exigency are capable of splitting up into two Forward medical Teams.
It has the capability to provide primary health care to a force of up to 700 in strength, with at least 20 ambulatory patients per day. The Laboratory conducts most of the necessary biochemical and hematological investigations. A well equipped emergency room with modern resuscitative equipment is also available to ensure adequate initial medical support. Modern physiotherapy facilities are also available.
High stress level endemic to such an operating environment is the biggest challenge. The recent proactive measures like improving individual awareness about their parameters viz, weight, BP, heart rate and skin conductance on a monthly basis, along with remedial suggestions have gone a long way in containing the onset and improving it subsequently. Family Group competitions have been promoted factoring in remedial measures to promote healthy living. Besides, routine preventive and prophylactic measures as well as indoctrination of air warriors have been under taken. Consequently, the sickness pattern has remained confined to mere sport related injuries.
Awareness of Social obligations towards the society in which we live in is inborn characteristic of Indians. The contingent too has been undertaking various measures. A school for Congolese children from nearby villages, whose parents cannot afford to send them to school, is being run. The services of locals are being utilised as teachers for the school. The children are being provided absolutely free education, uniforms, books, etc and midday meals. 16 Jun, the African Children's Day is celebrated by the contingent every year, wherein parents of these children and village heads, civil, police and military heads are invited to witness games and sports, followed by lunch. The contingent celebrates Congolese National day in a befitting manner on 30 Jun every year.
The success of a contingent can also be judged by the UN and inspection profie contingent's own equipment inspection (COE) and operational readiness inspection (ORI). These inspections are basically meant to conduct the stringent verification diligently for authorised reimbursement to the state Time and again, IAC-II has familiarised itself well to the working methods of UNO, COE standards and kept its operational readiness to the highest standards. The past COE and ORI inspection reports are evident and indicative of sustained efforts and high morale of the successive rotations. It has been due to the exceptional standards shown during the inspection of Indian Aviation Contingent-II during its induction phase and thereafter that it was decided by UNDPKO to do away with the pre-deployment inspection of the Indian Aviation Contingents.
The IAC-II has sublimely merged itself with the peacekeeping activities of the United Nations at DRC. It just occurred to us collectively, why an Indian peacekeeper is special or different. This had been because of often received compliments of an outsider that he could see commitment towards the peace written all over the faces of the air warriors of the IAC peacekeepers.
Well, if one dwells a bit deeper into the Indian psyche, one would find that adhering to the principles of peace and humanity as basic values has always been a second nature. This itself, gives him greater conviction and even more firm resolve to carry out the peacekeeping mission with continued fervour. The Indian Peacekeepers see a ray of hope that this state of transition and turmoil will surely pass and the Congolese, too, would embark on path of eternal prosperity and peace.
This hope gives the Indian Air Warrior a sense of commitment and realisation that they eventually would be part of the history in which they achieved their own ideals.
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