Christmas in the DRC

2013-12-25 06:00

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What does it take to bring some festive cheer to soldiers stationed far from home in a war zone that’s not out of the woods yet? Mostly comedian David Kau,pasta meals and regular games of soccer and cricket, Sabelo Ndlangisa discovers on a visit to the DRC

Corporal Nthabiseng Lekoma (25), an army paramedic from Mahikeng, misses home like many of her colleagues?–?but she takes her job seriously.

Her deployment with the UN Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is her first job outside South Africa since she joined the SA National Defence Force in 2008.

“It’s difficult to stay away from your comfort zone for a long time,” she says.

“Sometimes you feel down, sometimes you feel depressed, but we just keep on. We take it one day at a time.

“Once I’m here, I’m willing to perform my duties diligently and professionally.

“It is only human to miss home, but I am fine,” she adds.

The town of Goma has changed since the UN Intervention Brigade led the attack that crippled rebel group M23 last month.

Now Goma is bustling with activity.

People are buying and selling wares at the markets, while motorbike taxis ferrying passengers and white UN vehicles carrying soldiers jostle for space on the muddy streets.

Like unpredictable active volcano Mount Nyiragongo?–?whose lava is forever bubbling below the surface of the crater only to erupt unexpectedly?–?the town on the eastern DRC border with Rwanda has been unstable for years.

M23 had been in charge of Goma since last year and had been keeping President Joseph Kabila’s forces and his government out of the area.

Refugee camps dotted with white tents can still be seen on the flight between Goma and Sake.

The town of Sake is where some of the South African soldiers who are part of the UN forces in the DRC are stationed.

Indian, Malawian and Tanzanian troops also contribute to the UN force that is stationed there.

Lekoma is one of about 850 South Africans who make up the 23?407-strong UN team?– almost 19?000 of whom are soldiers. They are helping bring peace and stability to the DRC.

And it’s here that they will spend Christmas, far away from their families back home.

The South African department of defence is trying to keep the troops’ morale high.

It has asked companies to donate funds to buy the soldiers Christmas goodies and the gift bags will soon be en route.

Thabang Makwetla, the deputy defence minister, has also organised for stand-up comedian David Kau to cheer them up and for Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana to motivate them.

Lekoma appreciates the visit and says it is a gesture which shows that the government is thinking about its soldiers.

Other soldiers had been hoping Makwetla would announce their return date during his visit.

Locals are no longer as hostile towards the South African soldiers, whom they refer to in local lingo as Msawza, as they once were.

Some soldiers have left young children back home. The commander of the South African force in Goma, Lieutenant Colonel Wabanie from the Western Cape, says her two children have made peace with her long-term absence. Her children, aged one and 16, live with her husband in Pretoria.

Lieutenant Colonel Enrico Gherbavaz, the commander of the RSA Aviation Composite Helicopter Unit, says his 99-person troop at the Goma airport train and play sport?–?mostly soccer and cricket with sporty groups like the Indian battalion to keep their morale high.

Although the troops are sad that they are far from home during this time, special meals like pasta keep them happy.

Gherbavaz says the defeat of the rebel army has made more markets accessible to the soldiers for food. They plan to import food such as fresh meat and biltong from South Africa so they can eat familiar meals.

It was the man under his command who led the air strikes on the M23 bases in the mountains of Goma at the beginning of November.

Lieutenant Colonel Danie Bellingan piloted the Rooivalk helicopter that helped break the back of the rebel force. This was done with the help of DRC soldiers on the ground flanked by the UN troops, forcing the rebels to give in the next day.

Lieutenant Colonel Danie Bellingan, the 16 Squadron pilot who flew the Rooivalk helicopter that led the attack on rebel force M23 in November. Picture: Sabelo Ndlangisa/City Press

“It felt like attacking a training target in a training scenario at home. Because they are shooting at you, you see the traces passing under you to the sides. You don’t realise they could do anything to you,” says Bellingan.

“Only afterwards when you realise, ‘I could have got hurt on this one’, you start getting goosebumps and shaking a bit when you realise what you have done.

“But while you are doing it, you are concentrating on the job. You just shut it out in your peripheral vision and get the job done,” he adds.

The 55 rockets fired by the Rooivalk from about 3km away destroyed the M23’s bunkers and infrastructure like its anti-aircraft artillery.

A South African soldier was part of the team that flanked the DRC soldiers on the ground.

He says they moved in the next morning and found only the bodies of rebels in the wake of the attack. Most of the surviving rebels had fled to neighbouring Uganda.

»?Ndlangisa was a guest of the ministry of defence and military veterans

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