From the Archives: September 5th, 1960

Just back from the newly independent – and politically unstable – Democratic Republic of Congo, Cathal O’Shannon described the deployment of Irish troops on their first UN peacekeeping mission, amid hostilities that saw Joseph Mobutu seize power in a coup two months later

 

In five weeks the Irish soldiers have spread out efficiently, quickly and with a minimum of fuss into positions hundreds of miles apart. Goma, for instance, is 800 miles from here [Elisabethville, now Lubumbashi] as the crow flies. Aircraft, unfortunately, are not crows, and to get there by plane you fly something more like 1,200 miles.

They are operating in different types of country. In Goma they have the hills and escarpments and lakes; in Kindu they have some rain forest and a much more unpleasant climate; at Bukavu – formerly Costermansville – they have smaller mountains and more lakes; at Kamina they live in some comfort on the Katanga plain, which gets very hot in the afternoons. Albertville and Baudouinville are on Lake Tanganyika, and are pleasant enough places in normal times.

They have got used to the smells of Africa – the mixture of burning rubber, diesel fumes, sweat and the vanilla sweetness of the plantations. They have got used to the dust, the French language, the curiosity of the Africans and their complete lack of any idea of time or of doing something in a hurry. I cannot pretend that many of them – or, possibly, any of them – really like Africa. Like all soldiers they get bored away from home. The first month brought them to new places, but they rapidly tire of the new surroundings and want to get on to other towns and villages. For this reason all the soldiers like patrols, no matter how rough the roads. To get away from the rather confining atmosphere of a battalion or a company headquarters they will willingly go anywhere.

A lot has been said about the beauties of Kivu, and, perhaps, this has been over-stressed in Ireland. Goma certainly is a pleasant place. It was a holiday centre, quite a bustling little place, which has grown up in five or six years. Experience – military experience – however, counts more than the civilian memory of things passed. The life of the Irish soldier in Goma is very far removed from that of the white civilian there two months or two years ago.

For me and for the advance party of the 32nd Battalion Goma has its never-to-be-forgotten highlights: the morning we landed there in a DC4, having just been told on the radio that all the stores had been taken by the Force Publique [colonial military force] and that we could expect to be fired on when we landed, for instance. The utter relief at not being shot up by the well-armed Congolese soldiers is something I shall always remember.

The uncertainty of the next two or three days, when our footsteps were dogged by the Force Publique, grenades dangling dangerously from their web equipment; the days the mail did not come; the day we could not get the Radio Eireann broadcast from Brazzaville [across the border in the Republic of the Congo]; the cursing, swearing, utterly fed-up troops. These are the things I shall remember most about Goma, rather than the misty mornings and the hopping across the border to Ruanda-Urundi [the Belgian-administered colony that is now Rwanda and Burundi] for a swim.

Of Kindu, I have nothing but unpleasant memories of the first Belgian paracommandos we met there – grim, silent men, who a couple of weeks beforehand had shot their way into the town, and who were in no mood for pleasant conversation with the Irish troops who had come to replace them. Kindu is the sink of Kivu as far as the Irish are concerned. The company there had to live for almost two weeks on combat rations without any fresh food at all. They were shunted up and down the railway to Kasongo and Samba for the possible “invasion” of Katanga.

In Kivu, Bukavu itself, with a fair scattering of whites still living there, seemed the best place to be. The men were allowed to swim, there was a bit of life about the place and an easy atmosphere. The company there had it pretty good, and, I hope, are still having it good.

But no matter where the Irish soldiers are in Kivu they are still being fleeced by rapacious Belgian traders. In two weeks, I watched the prices creep up daily by almost 50%. Beer – and it is not good beer in Kivu – was about 20 francs when we first got there. When I left it was 30 francs and, in some places, 35 francs.

Read the original here

Selected by Joe Joyce; email fromthearchives@irishtimes.com