My heart started beating fast when we touched the runway. I was still sitting in my Business Class window seat, after having just landed at Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), airport. I was part of the Female Engagement Team (FET) of 15 Lady Officers including EME, Engineers, ICTOs, ISPR, Ordinance Officers, Doctors, Psychiatrists, and AFNS, and heading them as the Team Leader. During the flight, most of us remained silent, thoughtful and nervous. We were strangers to each other and facing the same feelings of leaving our families and homeland. But one thing we all were sure of was that this voyage would surely become life changing for all of us.
My very first interaction with the land of DRC took place on February 5, 2021 at Goma. I can still feel the heavenly breeze of fresh air that whipped through my scarf and past my cheeks, filled with smell of orange, pink and purple wild flowers, and felt the brisk forest air filling my lungs. Because of the tropical climate, it was moist and humid. Captivating clouds were sliding over the bright blue sky. The environment was raw and exquisite. The sight of proud Mount Nyorigonga from the airport was spectacular. We had to wait in the passenger waiting room for some time and then we departed for Kavumu, Pak House, where we had to stay for 14 days in quarantine.
Unlike Goma, Kavumu’s weather is cold and chilly; you need sweaters and warm clothing during the night. But Kavumu is more panoramic and scenic than Goma. Living in quarantine, with strangers, without any interaction with outsiders was challenging. The only access to outside was a gallery cum corridor from where we could see locals pass by, kids playing in their backyards, women doing household duties and men selling merchandise. On a daily basis, during the night, Pak House became lodging house for African rats. For the initial few nights, I couldn’t sleep due to their presence but later on we became used to cohabiting with them.
During the first quarantine period at Pak House, we cherished most of our entire tenure. The bond we made there was matchless. We all used to wait for the meal van, commented on food quality and taste, crib about administrative issues not being resolved by HQ, and started physical exercises in the dormitory for losing weight. A few of us started watching TV shows, old dramas and some began reading books. Time passed quicker than our imagination and one day we were asked to pack up for Uvira where our orientation visits were to begin. It was my first experience of a helicopter ride; I was very excited, not knowing that soon this ride would become ‘Taxi of Congo’.
Uvira is a city in South Kivu province of DRC. It is located at extreme north end of Lake Tanganyika. Streets of Uvira were devastated with UN peacekeeping helicopters hovering all the time in the sky. I saw hundreds of refugees outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp on my way to our Unit area. When we reached, we were taken to our designated accommodation. It was my first ever experience of living in containers. They were cozy and comfortable but with no privacy at all as the walls were very thin.
Within 200 meters of our living was the stunning Lake Tanganika. The shoreline of Lake Tanganika crosses the territory of four countries: Tanzania, DRC, Burundi and Zambia. Tanganika is so vast that when you stand on its shore, it seems like a sea. I still remember how calm and restful it was. The lake was clear and shaped like a perfectly flat disc of metal. The sight left me mesmerized and in awe. We had a lavish dinner at the Jetti, built by the unit. Soft music, scrumptious food, and majestic rhythm of the waves in the lake left an enduring impression.
The next morning, I woke up to the bustling noises of men and water. Tanganika was flooding and our accommodation was about to be inundated. We hurriedly vacated our containers and shifted to the nearby building. Uvira was flooded and people were mourning the loss of belongings. Our trops started their rescue operations immediately. The disaster struck unexpectedly and in 12 hours, Uvira suffered damages on an extensive scale. We were given orders to depart for Sange.
Northern Light Infantry (NLI) Batallian made exceptional arrangements for our comfortable stay there at Sange and made our stay memorable. We had our own compound, mess, gym and walking track. I cannot forget the chacha, who remained in service for the whole year exclusively for Lady Officers. Here our work started; we were given briefings about the situation, security conditions and assigned tasks for the coming year.
With a population of around 108 million, DRC is the most populous, officially Francophone country in the world and extremely rich in natural resources, but has suffered from political instability, lack of infrastructure and corruption. Armed groups attack local communities, loot, rape, kidnap women and children and make them work as sex slaves. United Nations (UN) is working together with the Congolese government for the stabilization and development of DRC along with the provision of humanitarian assistance to the needy.
Being a part of women peacekeepers, improvement was seen in overall peacekeeping performance as we had greater access to communities. Women and children in small villages turned out to be more comfortable with us in comparison to our male counterparts. The information we used to receive from interviews, interaction with local community/ kids and women, would otherwise be difficult to get. We tried to build trust among them and to help in the improvement of their issues.
As the team leader of the FET, I had to plan and implement local interactions, targeting women and children population for them to share their problems by giving them a sense of security and also gather valuable information. To achieve that objective, we conducted patrolling to improve information gathering and assess security situation to identify genuine need for CIMIC activities. By utilizing my team members’ diverse expertise, we planned and conducted free medical camps, to build the locals’ confidence on FET activities. Psychological sessions and exercises with the psychologist of FET were arranged for women and children to discuss conflict related violence including sexual abuse, resultant depression and stress. We provided vocational training such as first aid, English language sessions, computer classes in schools, gardening skills, delivered awareness lectures on health, female empowerment, basic hygiene issues, self-protection against violence, child abuse, etc. We visited and interacted with local civil administration authorities, local chiefs, police personnel for creating better coordination and assistance. Refugee camps, local bazaar and schools were the places where we interacted with people.
We used to make colorful charts, prepare lectures, arrange food items and small gifts for children and in return the smiles on their faces made all our efforts fruitful and each day purposeful. After every activity, the feeling of giving happiness and relieving someone’s agony made us experience a feeling of indescribable accomplishment.
On May 21, 2021, Mount Nyiragongo erupted. Lava approached Goma airport and moved towards the city. Thousands of people left their homes in a hurry. UN ensured the safety of its peacekeepers, but due to airport closure, our flight’s (to Pakistan) schedule got disturbed. We had planned for our leave from the day we had started our mission, but now there was uncertainty about the timeline. Our children were waiting for us. This was surely one of the toughest times for all of us in Congo as we were desperate to go home. Thankfully, in a few days, the airport authorities along with necessary administrative assistance of UN made the airport operational and we managed to embark on our first leave.
After coming back from the leave, we spent 14 days in quarantine at Kavumu. The compound selected for our quarantine was surrounded by lush green grass and flowers. It was besides the runway of Kavumu airport. The whole day we used to observe the landing and takeoff of different airplanes and helicopters of UN. After quarantine, we again reached Sange, our second home, away from our homeland.
Time passed and we made various endeavors; it was hard to see burnt houses, devastated people, hungry children, pregnant teenagers, poor locals that were wishful of bright future for their upcoming generations, looking forward for peacekeepers to bring peace to their country. We tried our best to bring smiles on their faces and hope to their hearts for the rest of our tenure.
On February 6, 2022, we returned home from Sange with the sentiments of leaving someone very dear behind. It was difficult to leave the people for whom we worked tirelessly, even though they had no relationship to us other than humanity, and hopes for peace that they developed with our presence. I wish a prosperous future for all the locals, especially for all the children of Congo. I am hopeful that with all the concerted efforts, a day will come when DRC will stand on its own. Its people deserve to see the colors of peace in their homeland. HH
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