The two Irish soldiers who landed in Casement Aerodrome in west Dublin this week had more reason than most to welcome the sight of rain.
As Ireland exited a week-long heatwave, Comdt Ciarán McKeown and Capt Cillian McHugh were returning from the United Nations peacekeeping duty in Western Sahara, a vast desert country where the temperatures have been known to reach 45 degrees.
“We were flown out to the desert and my reaction was this is just one vast, vast, vast piece of land. There’s literally nothing around you. The nearest place to me was 450km away,” Capt McHugh said.
“The Irish rain and greenery looked lovely as we were flying in yesterday.”
Most Irish people are unaware the Defence Forces have been contributing to the UN Minurso mission in Western Sahara for the last 30 years.
That is partly down to the size of the mission– there have never been more than two or three Irish officers in the country at any one time – and partly down to country’s relative stability; until last year the conflict which led to the mission’s establishment in 1991 had lain dormant.
Comdt McKeown and Capt McHugh were the last Irish troops to contribute to the mission. This is because of what the undermanned Defence Forces calls "a need to consolidate current operations", including Ireland's other peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and Africa.
“Ireland remains committed to its current international commitments and anticipates reassigning these appointments within its other existing deployments,” it said.
The Irish withdrawal comes at a delicate time for the mission. Last November, the 30-year-old ceasefire broke down when one side, the Polisario Front which controls the southeast of the country, began firing on the Moroccan-controlled territory.
This left the 200 UN peacekeepers in an precarious position, particularly the troops located in the Polisario-controlled area which lay to the east of the 2,700km sand wall erected by Morocco to stem guerrilla raids.
This was the area where Comdt McKeown, a father of three from Cork, was posted. Minurso is an unarmed mission, meaning his contingent had to rely on Polisario troops for protection in the “bandit areas” of the territory, he said.
They also relied on Polisario goodwill to allow the transport of supplies to and from their base. After the ceasefire broke down, this goodwill was in short supply, leaving the troops in an “unpredictable” situation.
“They limited the supplies we could get. We could only get them by air so it became a precarious situation logistically,” he said. “You might get one helicopter in a month or you might get two.”
This meant at times the UN troops did not have the fuel to carry out their main function in the country, to conduct long-range patrols to ensure both sides were complying with the truce. The patrols took place by air and land, and could last up to 10 hours.
It also had more immediate consequences. Food deliveries became unpredictable, meaning Comdt McKeown and his men were forced to dip into their reserve combat rations.
They went for long periods without fresh food. This lasted until recently when negotiations with the Polisario eventually bore fruit (and vegetables). Comdt McKeown said he has a new-found appreciation for non-tinned food.
Despite the increased military activity, the UN troops were not in significant danger, he said. “Obviously if the Polisario wanted to take action against us they probably could, but it would be very damaging to their cause because the members on the team site were multinational.”
Minurso will continue without Irish involvement. Its primary goal, to oversee a referendum on the question of Western Sahara independence from Morocco, seems further away than ever. However, the Moroccans appear to be holding their side of the truce, raising hopes the ceasefire can be salvaged.
Until then, Western Sahara will remain the only African country still on the UN’s list of “non-self-governing territories”.