The front page caption of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the stage of the Leader’s Summit on Peacekeeping in UN (The Daily Star, September 30, 2015) drew great attention from all.
In the other picture (Financial Express), I saw her proudly standing in the front row with President Obama at her side. I am sure, like me, many in Bangladesh felt the pride of being the top troop-contributing country in the world in peace-keeping.
As a member of the Bangladesh Army, I feel equally proud of being a peacekeeper twice, at UNOSOM II (in Somalia) and MONUC (in Democratic Republic of Congo). Today, I am fondly recalling some incidents to provide readers a glimpse of my experience and feelings as a national flag-bearer in a foreign country.
In 1994, I was selected to go to Somalia with nine East Bengal (EB). We started to prepare for the onward journey to Mogadishu.
We were the advance party of some 200 members along with the command structure. I was included in the first batch as the 2IC of the Brave Company.
The UN chartered plane which would take us to Mogadishu arrived, but there were some problems and Civil Aviation Authority was not allowing it to take off. Waiting was prolonged as the deliberations went on.
We were all waiting in the airport and watching the 1994 football World Cup finals at midnight, and were horrified to see the big stars of the ever-favourite Brazilian team miss the penalties one after the other.
Finally, we took off in the morning, and after a brief re-fuelling at Muscat we landed at the Mogadishu airport just short of sunset.
The Mogadishu airport is almost like the one at Cox’s Bazaar. The planes descend from the sea-side, and all you see is the sea just before touching down. Tired from the journey, we were expecting a warm welcome.
We were in for a big surprise.
The plane immediately took off without unloading our luggage, and there was no one to welcome us at the airport. The captain of the plane declared that the Mogadishu airport was not safe for night parking, and the sun was almost setting. The plane would go to Mombasa, Kenya for the night, and would be back to deliver our luggage the next morning.
The representatives failed to receive us, since there was a fight in the vicinity of the airport and a Nepali peacekeeper was killed. Therefore, the Force HQ had stopped all movements to the airport. We were stranded in an alien country with no luggage, no food, no toilet, and no sleeping arrangements.
The readers will have difficulty in conceiving such a situation. To many, an airport is a busy place buzzing with passengers, duty free shops, clean toilets, and comfortable waiting areas. For us, the terminal building was completely dark apart from the security lights of the perimeter.
I found some washrooms placed by the UN. They had no water supply, and the sewerage was overflowing with a terrible stench. But humans are champions of innovation, and I’d rather not explain further as to how we used the water.
I was lucky that I carried a small hand bag with sleeping shorts, a lungi, towel, and a shaving kit. Others put everything in their luggage, and were without anything except what they were carrying on their uniform.
The next morning, we woke up and found that the reception party had arrived. The mess waiters were running about with water and breakfast. The luggage-carrying plane was not in sight.
However, there was an arrangement made for the luggage collection, and we were off soon after the breakfast towards our base camp at Affguay (some 20 mile from Mogadishu).
The sight of the green and red fluttering brought tears of relief and comfort. Was it patriotism? I really cannot tell for sure
It was a dirt track on the high dunes or hills, and I could see part of Mogadishu on the east of the road. After a while, the dirt track joined a tarmac road on the west part of the city. As we took a west-bound turn, our convoy was on a highway.
I was looking at the semi-arid country-side dotted by thatched huts scattered all the over. The terrain was covered with red sandy soil with acacia trees and intermittent bushes. Strange and alien.
The sun was yet to rise, but the morning had a cool breeze. Suddenly, my eyes caught sight of a flag flying atop a high pole; it was swaying lazily in the morning breeze. A strange emotion swept over me. I felt my gut tightening and my eyes welling up with tears.
The flag was flying atop a water tank. The sight felt comforting and wonderful. The green and red Bangladeshi national flag was flying against a dull, cloudy morning sky in the strange background of an alien country side.
After such a perilous journey, spending a night in dirt and dust, at long last, the sight of the green and red fluttering brought tears of relief and comfort. Was it patriotism? I really cannot tell for sure.
The flag in Congo
There was another incident in DRC. In the year of 2001, I was selected as a military observer in MONUC (presently known as MONUSCO).
I was briefed by some officers that nothing was available in DRC and therefore, one should carry as much ration as possible.
UN was allowing 120kg of extra luggage, so carrying extra ration seemed like a good idea. My wife helped me make a long list of things, which filled up my 32 inch Samsonite suitcase.
Landing at Kinshasa, I was received by one of my corps officers who was working at the logistic HQ, and I quickly settled down in his apartment.
I became a famous cook, preparing fish curry (with fresh fish from Congo River), muri ghanta, khichuri, and chicken. I soon finished the load of the rations I carried.
Soon, the posting orders were announced, and I was made a team leader of an observer team.
My teammates were Major Dharam Veer Singh (India), Major Chipala (Zambia), and Major Sala Faye (from Senegal). DRC is a francophone country, and only Sala Faye spoke fluent French.
We got going to our new place of posting in a place called Kalemie. It was on the bank of Lake Tanganyika (one of the largest lakes in the great lake region and probably the second deepest sweet water lake in the world).
We were spending lazy days with nothing much to do except attending morning briefs at the sector HQ and attending parties arranged by Indians, Russians, and Uruguayans.
I used to speak to other Bangladeshi observers deployed around me through HF radio and satellite phone.
One of such persons was Squadron Leader Hai, who was deployed in a place called Kabala in our sector. As Eid-ul-Azha was approaching, we both planned for a short vacation at Kinshasa.
Accordingly our flight was arranged and we soon found ourselves on a Kinshasa-bound plane from Goma. There were only three passengers on that plane. Kinshasa was four hours away so the plane had to re-fuel at Kananga.
It was an official holiday and the MOVCON (Movement Control) staff told us to disembark and take a break at the terminal. I later learned that he was from Sierra Leone. Hai and I were enjoying coffee and cigarettes in an open lobby with many other UN staff in civilian clothes. We were in uniform.
In the middle of this, suddenly the MOVCON staff approached us and said that he would like to salute us, because according to him, without the Bangladeshi peacekeepers, his country would still be at civil war.
He identified us by the national flag on our uniforms.
He went on to explain that it was courage, dedication, and high standard of professionalism that had ensured the early cease-fire and peace in Sierra Leone.
Long live Bangladesh Army, long live Bangladesh.
Brigadier General Tushar Kanti Chakma, NDC, PSC is a member of the Bangladesh Army and a peacekeeper.