It’s hot. It’s humid. And after a long morning escorting a lumbering U.N. World Food Program convoy 50 miles between Dungu and Ngilima on one of the muddy, rutted glorified animal trails that passes for roads here, the Moroccan infantrymen are tired. They lounge in the shade in a razor-wire ringed encampment while the WFP drivers park their trucks under an impressive, slowly rotting European-style brick edifice that is one of the only reminders of long-departed Belgian colonizers.
It’s a typical September afternoon in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Moroccans — part of a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force — have just one thing on their minds: lunch.
As if on cue, an energetic whop-whop sound rises from the lush horizon and a white-painted Mi-17 helicopter with the Bangladeshi air force’s green-and-red roundel on the fuselage angles over the Moroccans’ camp. Three laps around Ngilima, drawing skyward the eyes of soldiers and villagers alike, then the battered-looking helicopter settles into a clearing guarded by a squad of Moroccans. The crew chief shoves open the door and drops the built-in metal stairs; the Moroccans crouch and dart forward to receive a special delivery: bread, raw meat packed in plastic bags, cardboard boxes of fruit juice.
It’s hungry, thirsty work safeguarding the tenuous security of one of the world worst conflict zones. In a country the size of Western Europe but with just 300 miles of paved roads, air transport is a vital resource. Thanks to the peacekeepers’ protection of emergency food deliveries, thousands of Ngilima residents will eat despite ongoing incursions by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group. And thanks to the tireless ministrations of the Bangladeshi air force, the peacekeepers will eat, too.
Coming Apart at the Seams
Congo is a troubled country. The army mutinied just a week after Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, and it was downhill from there. Strongmen fought for influence in the capital as mineral-rich outlying provinces moved to seceded. The Belgians sent in troops, followed by other European powers. For five years, Congolese fought each other and outsiders until, in 1965, army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu seized power and crushed all opposition.
For three decades, Mobutu ruled as a dictator while promoting an illusion of progress, even renaming the country “Zaire” to try to distance it from its colonial past. When Mobutu died in 1997, the country again came apart at the seams. With foreign backing, rebel leader Laurent Kabila took charge amid a storm of rebellions and invasions. A U.N. peacekeeping force, now codenamed “MONUSCO,” began with just a handful of officers and steadily expanded. When Kabila was shot dead by a bodyguard in 2001, his son Joseph took over.
No less corrupt than his predecessors, the younger Kabila at least seemed tired of full-scale war. His ascent was followed by a fragile peace, reinforced by the now-20,000-strong U.N. force. But rebel groups remain active in the east. The LRA, which fought to establish a theocratic regime in Uganda before being chased into Congo in 2005, is among the worst. The LRA murders and pillages and kidnaps boys and laborers and girls as sex slaves. U.N. contingents scattered across the northeast in towns and villages such as Dungu and Ngilima struggle to provide a basic level of protection against rebel attacks.
In the LRA’s haunting ground there are no paved roads, and few unpaved ones. Air support is indispensable. Last year, in response to LRA moves, the U.N. established a new base in the town of Dungu. Surveying its sizeable force of military- and contractor-operated aircraft in Congo, the peacekeeping command tapped a Bangladeshi contingent in the eastern city of Bunia to man a brand-new airfield and a detachment of two helicopters.
There was nothing when the peacekeepers arrived. Just trees and red clay and the jungle cacophony of monkeys, birds and insects. A force of Indonesian engineers busied themselves clearing and smoothing an unpaved runway and ramp and installing tents, and later, containerized living quarters. Water would come from a nearby river; power would be supplied by generators. A year later, the Dungu air field is is bare-bones but fully functional, supporting around a dozen movements a day of mostly C-130 transports and Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters. The two Bangladeshi Mi-17s, fitted for door-mounted machine guns, are the only permanently-based aircraft.
“We perform any role and task given us by MONUSCO, which includes cargo resupply, troop movement and medical transport,” says Squadron Leader Mahbubul Alam, one of 10 Mi-17 pilots assigned to the 75-strong “Banair” detachment. “Because of the terrain, the flights themselves are risky. There are areas where there are lots of ground threats, which is a stress for the pilots.”
Alam has flown almost every day during his planned yearlong deployment, for a total of 300 hours in the first 10 months. Many flights, such as the food delivery to Ngilima, last just an hour. The Mi-17′s short endurance means it is better suited to local missions than to the circuit flying that moves people and material in a vast, multi-leg loop around Congo. A fleet of longer-legged, contractor-flown Mi-8s handles segments of the circuit alongside Bangladeshi and Moroccan C-130s and light transports belonging to the U.N. and E.U. All make frequent stops in Dungu.
In Congo, violent storms can whip up with little notice, especially during the fall rainy season. There are around 250 airstrips in Congo, but no more than 40 are active. “If I have an emergency, there is hardly any place to land,” says Squadron Leader Hassan Rayhan, the detachment commander who also flies missions. The dearth of suitable emergency diverts places a high priority on careful, conservative planning and accurate meteorology. That and other support tasks are the responsibility of “Ban ASU,” the Bangladeshi air force Airfield Support Unit with around 40 people assigned.
In container doubling as the weather office, Squadron Leader Shamsul Alam, the detachment meteorologist, glances at his instruments and voices the painfully obvious. “In general, the weather is hot and humid,” he says without a trace of irony.
Meteorologist Alam’s “office” at least has air conditioning. But Ban ASU’s firemen, waiting by their fire truck as a Bangaledeshi air force C-130 loads passengers and cargo, stand all day every day under the sun. Squadron Leader Shaheen Salwar, the Ban ASU commander, says the firemen have the hardest job at the airfield.
But the two officers manning the makeshift control tower — little more than a glass-enclosed box resting atop several stacked shipping containers — might challenge that claim. There’s no radar at the Dungu airstrip; controllers Fight Lieutenant Tauhidul Islam and Squadron Leader Syedur Rahman Khan maintain near-constant voice contact with all flights to ensure there are no conflicts. In addition, they must guide ground movements and respond to any emergencies.
All this, in a sweltering glass-enclosed box packed with equipment. “We have radios, both ground-to-ground and ground-to-air,” Khan explains. “We have the non-directional beacon, GPS and weather-direction and air speed, humidity and temperature [indicators]. … We have a telephone for communicating with ground stations and also visual ground-signaling equipment.” That is, an orange flag. “If an aircraft is incoming and there are vehicles on the runway, we need to clear them immediately.”
Rayhan adds to the list of headaches, beginning with the clay ramp and runway. On dry days, “the surface is dusty,” he says. “Maintenance is a little difficult. But the rewarding part is, I am flying aircraft, I am helping the U.N.”
“As a matter of fact, working in the international environment, under the umbrella of the U.N. is one of the most rewarding things for us as military aviators,” pilot Alam says. And flying in demanding circumstances is equally “rewarding,” he adds.
Besides, it wouldn’t do to complain too much. Tens of thousands of vulnerable Congolese owe what little security they enjoy to a few hundred peacekeepers, who in turn utterly depend on the Bangladeshis and their helicopters for supplies and mobility. Without a doubt, it’s a constant struggle to support air operations in the middle of nowhere. But compared to the people down below, the airmen don’t have it so bad.