News24

SA troops still welcome in DRC

2009-07-13 22:08

Pretoria - For the locals of Nema village outside Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sight of heavily armed South African soldiers has long ceased to be a novelty.

Dating back to 1999 the South African military has continued to deploy troops to conflict-torn regions in the DRC's troubled regions.

Since fierce fighting became a norm in the country and concentrated recently in the eastern regions, many Congolese people have come to terms with the reality that they would have to share their lands with army companies and weapon wielding soldiers.

As clouds of dust are whipped up constantly by military vehicles making their way through to the hot zones, pedestrians simply cover their heads with brightly coloured cloth and wait under the path is visible again.

Private Sinakho Bunga, 24, from Cape Town, has been based at Alpha Company outside Goma for less than a month but already she has built up a rapport with the locals.

"It's very interesting, I'm adapting easily. They [the Congolese] are very friendly. When we do foot patrols they always give us bananas."

Rifleman Welile Magenu, based at Bravo Company, says interacting with the villagers has helped him improve his language skills.

"I enjoy it very much meeting other people with different languages."

In the city of Goma, which is still trying to rebuild itself after the volcano Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and lava tore through the town, people are constantly on the move.

Small shops, looking very much like the typical South African spaza shop, line the tarred but pothole-ridden main road.

Transport is mainly in the form of motorcycles and minibus taxis while makeshift wooden bicycles double as people and supply carriers.

In Goma, a man pushing about 500kg of cement is as common a sight as a little boy carrying litres of water attached to material around his head while carrying a sibling on his chest.

The troops from the bases are constantly in contact with the people in their areas and many a soccer match or group church service have been organised over the years.

While the military's primary objective has been to protect the people from rebels, a more entrenched relationship has further strengthened efforts.

Battalion commander Chris Els explains that by knowing the locals it is better to identify the rebels, the force of which is unknown.

"Today he's a civilian, tonight he's a soldier. You cannot recognise who your enemy is."

Admiral Philip Schoultz of Joint Operations - which prepares the various forces for deployment to mission areas - told media in Pretoria following their visit to the mission areas that the peacekeeping approach needed to be holistic.

"Nowadays peacekeeping is not about the soldiers only. Not only must you provide protection but you must provide the conditions that peace will continue."

This included providing humanitarian aid and infrastructure development.

Interaction with the locals has also caused much frustration as the South African military contingent, as mandated by the United Nations, can only do so much.

"The local chiefs... they also trust the Monuc [the French acronym given to the UN organisation mission]. But sometimes our hands are chopped," Schoultz,said referring to the high expectations of the local people.