At sea in Darfur
|Cbc News, 16 Octobre 2006|
One of the first things people ask when they find out I am Canada's senior military officer in Darfur is: What is a naval officer doing in what is obviously a desert?
Attempting to oversee a fragile ceasefire in war-torn Sudan is what we in the military call both a coalition and a joint effort. Coalition meaning it involves more than one country and joint meaning that it involves more than one military service. So, believe it or not, I am far from being the only sailor here.
In my case, as an officer who has spent more than twenty years working in a naval environment, the past three months have definitely been an eye-opener. But that is one of the benefits of being in the Canadian Forces.
One year you find yourself at sea on the Atlantic Ocean working with NATO and the next in the middle of a desert assisting a peacekeeping mission for what has been described as "the world's worst man-made disaster." And that has grown to nearly 7,700 personnel, most of them soldiers from African countries.
It's not well known, but Canada is one of the biggest contributors to the African Union mission in Sudan. We have the largest number of serving military personnel here of any non-African country — all of us volunteers — and, with more than $320 million being donated to Darfur over the last two years, we are the mission's third largest contributor.
The challenges at hand
With that role, however, comes some unique challenges. For example, one of the more visible of the Canadian contributions is the over one hundred loaned armoured vehicles (Grizzlies and Huskies) that can be found at most of the thirty-two military sites here and are the workhorses of the daily patrols.
We provide technical support and procedural advice to those who maintain and use these vehicles. But training the different African contingents how to operate them properly is no easy task.
For while Canadian teens typically get a driver's licence shortly after they are eligible, this is not the case in Africa. Consequently the pool from which people can be drawn to drive these vehicles is relatively small.
What's more, several of the countries we're training have very limited experience in working alongside any type of armoured vehicles in a coordinated fashion. This reality must be taken account of in a training course that is already only a fraction of the time a similar one would take in Canada.
The two Canadian officers, of whom I am one, oversee everything from convoy movement, fuel management, contracting, and medical support to camp infrastructure. This is a difficult task in an area half the size of Ontario and in which everything from food to fuel to general stores must be flown in to our base from Khartoum, a distance of over 800 kilometres.
What's a Canadian?
Our camp at ZamZam on the outskirt of El Fashir is protected by a battalion of Rwandans who all have a great deal of respect for Canada. It is always interesting in talking to them as they invariably inquire about General Romeo D'Allaire (the Canadian who commanded the UN peacekeepers attempting to quell the Rwandan conflict) who is greatly respected.
For many Africans we are the first Canadians they meet. As such, many try to learn the difference between an American and a Canadian. One of the more popular questions is, if an American is called a Yankee, what is a Canadian called? Of course the answer is a Canuck. But the inquisitive then ask, what is Canuck? And we are forced to go to our computers to learn the word's French Canadian origins.
As well, it seems as if all the deployed soldiers have at least one relative living in Canada (mostly in Toronto, it seems). To that end, many ask how the Canadian contingent can help them immigrate to this rich country. Occasionally some of the ladies even ask how they can go about marrying a Canadian.
Recognizing that one of the goals on the mission is to create a rapport with the camp's residents, we Canadians have borrowed an event that many ships use to build esprit de corps — we have instituted a movie night for the African soldiers.
Every Friday night, we use a LCD projector to show a movie on one of the large tents. This is a huge morale builder for the Africans as they have no amenities of their own. On the first night, when over 50% of the camp arrived to watch a Hollywood blockbuster, we knew we had made a good impression.
Living conditions are extremely challenging. For example, temperatures regularly range between 35C and 50C and, as almost all the African soldiers and civilian police do not have access to air conditioning (fortunately we do), they understandably have a hard time sleeping.
Sandstorms are a regular occurrence and their ferocity rival anything depicted in the movies. But the greatest irritants are insects. Even though all our tents have had their windows glued shut, bugs the size of beetles still regularly enter and fall onto the floor with a thump that can wake you from a sound sleep.
Mosquito nets over the beds are a must to keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes. And of course cholera is a major concern with the local town having recorded several hundred confirmed cases and numerous deaths. Definitely not a typical foreign port for a sailor.