The Government considered evacuating Defence Forces peacekeepers from Democratic Republic of Congo by having them rent a car and drive across the border to Rwanda earlier this year due to mounting violence.
The troops were eventually withdrawn by the Air Corps and have not been replaced. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show increasing concern for the Irish officers’ safety amid attacks on UN peacekeepers in the east of the country.
Irish troops have been assigned to the Monusco mission in Democratic Republic of Congo since 2001. In July 2022 there were two officers in the country, with a third on leave in Ireland.
On July 25th, 2022, the Department of Defence was warned violent protests were taking place outside several UN bases in the city of Goma, including Camp Lava where the Irish contingent operated. At this time the Irish troops were considered secure in their accommodation known as Irish House.
The protesters were demanding the departure of Monusco, which they accused of inaction in the face of violence by the M23 rebel group.
The next day Department of Defence officials received information via a news report that two anti-UN protesters had been shot dead. Officials discussed contingency plans for the possible evacuation of the Irish personnel and a senior Defence Forces general ordered a media blackout.
Minister for Defence Simon Coveney was briefed that the threat to the Irish soldiers was judged as “severe” and “highly likely” the threat against them would increase.
The Minister was advised that it was prudent to activate contingency plans for their evacuation. This would involve moving the officers from Irish House to a British-controlled base and then “if appropriate” loading their weapons, radios and ammunition into a rented vehicle and driving across the border to Rwanda, about 10km away. The briefing noted sunset was at 18.10 local time.
By July 28th the Irish soldiers had evacuated Irish House and an imminent attack on the property was considered “highly likely”. The heavily redacted documents show the Defence Forces were concerned if the officers made a break for the border they might be refused entry and have to return. This was regarded as unacceptable.
A decision was taken to have the officers remain in Goma for the time being. It was noted the violence had calmed somewhat.
At this point the Defence Forces said regarding future participation, it is no longer happy with the risk profile of the mission and said it is “time to draw a line under participation”.
By August 5th, the soldiers were still judged to be in danger. A decision was taken for a “safe and orderly repatriation”. An Air Corps PC-12 would fly to Goma, pick up the officers and their weapons and fly to Uganda. From there the officers would fly home commercially while the Air Corps would bring back the equipment, a 14,000km round trip. The cost of the mission would be €19,000.
This was the preferred option as it would not leave the officers “unarmed and exposed” waiting in Goma Airport for a commercial flight. However, they would have to leave behind an SUV worth $27,800 purchased in Congo three months previously. It was decided the jeep should be sold back to the dealer for €25,500.
The withdrawal of the mission was completed on August 12th. However, the Air Corps aircraft was unable to return home from Uganda for several more days due to issues with diplomatic clearances.