Mission to Africa
The First Austrian Soldiers Left Jan. 29 for Chad - A 12-Month Tour With the EUFOR Peacekeepers
It’s a grey January morning and a military band leads the Austrian Guard of Honour into the pinkish brick-walled courtyard of the defense ministry with a jaunty march that defies the weather. The ceremonial guard, elegantly dressed in long green winter coats, is here to give the 160 Austrian troops (and one dog) headed on a peace-keeping mission to Chad an adequate farewell.
The Africa bound troops, who are standing to attention in front of the northern wall of the courtyard wearing sand-colored fatigues (which look slightly scruffy in the shadow of the Guard of Honor), will serve beside 3,500 other European Union (EUFOR) soldiers in central Africa. They have an initial 12 month- mandate to protect aid workers and refugees fleeing violence in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan. Even in the judgment of the Irish commander of the peacekeepers, Lt. General Pat Nash, it is a mammoth and potentially risky mission.
A gaggle of photographers rushes aside to make way for the marching troops. You feel this is as much a PR event as a true military ceremony. The public has been very wary about the mission to a far-off dangerous country. The tabloid press has been particularly scathing about the value of a mission so far from Austria’s borders and, in parliament, the opposition Green Party, through security spokesman Peter Pilz, has been very vocal in criticizing what it sees as the government’s strategy and logistical oversights. Among the concerns he listed: "No-one can speak decent French."
The Social Democrat Defense Minister Norbert Darabos, the man who has decided to send them to Chad, is all too aware of that skepticism. After a speech in which he highlights the desperate plight of the central African refugees and calls the troop-deployment a "true humanitarian mission," emphasizing that the troops deserve "support, recognition and respect," he goes through the ranks shaking each of the deployed soldiers by the hand and thanking them individually for their commitment.
So how does it feel to be responsible for the contentious decision to deploy the troops? I put that question to the Minister when he had finished his tour of gratitude. He said he was concerned but confident about the troops’ safety, admitting that there was a certain danger inherent in any such overseas mission, but pointing out that the risk was considered lower than a comparable mission in Afghanistan. He added that, contrary to criticism, his ministry had done everything to give the troops an optimal training for the mission (this had included apparently lessons in the wilder elements of Chadian fauna at the Schönbrunn zoo) and concluded that the troops were "determined and well-prepared."
Certainly the first soldier I speak to, Major Manfred Brandl, reflected the minister’s confidence.
"I volunteered so that we could achieve our goal of bringing humanitarian support to the people in Chad," he tells me, in the fashion of a man well-versed in dealing with the press, "so I’m looking forward to the mission." But as the soldiers relaxed after the parade, a young army medic, who wants to be named only by his first name Martin, admits he has reservations; "I’m very nervous. We don’t know what to expect down there. It’s a foreign country and a foreign culture. I’ve never been to Africa: I only know it from the Atlas."
It’s the heat that he is the most worried about; the troops are leaving Austria in mid-winter and arriving in a desert-like country where day time temperatures often top the 40 degree Celsius mark. It’s tough for the soldiers, of course, but perhaps even harder for the families left behind. Martin says his parents were dead-set against him joining the mission to Africa and that he had spent a lot of time with them trying to explain his reasons for going. And what are those reasons?
"There’s so much poverty, so much misery down there. And I think that as a medic that’s where I should be. That’s where I can make a real difference."
Believing that their loved ones are doing a worthwhile job under the African sun can sometimes be a great consolation to the family left behind. Relatives of the dispatched soldiers have been invited to the ceremony (and to a meal of goulash and beer afterwards), and a thin row of them are now watching the parade from the side-lines, clasping plastic cups of sweet black tea or snapping away with digital cameras.
Elisabeth Schell is among them. She married a Chad-bound soldier, another medic, only last Friday and tells me that she is very proud of what her husband has committed to doing.
When she speaks, her words are accompanied by a smile that is both endearing and obviously anxious. The nobility of her husband’s cause is a consolation that only goes so far:
"It is a very queasy feeling. We’ve agreed not to telephone too often, perhaps just once a week, and not to set a fixed time for the calls, so that we’re not overly worried if one of us can’t make it to the phone."
Major Manfred Brandl recognises what Frau Schell is going through. He says that the best way to reassure relatives is to give them as much information as possible about the situation in Chad and to keep that information flowing throughout the length of the mission.
Elisabeth Schell says she feels she has been very well looked after by the military. She has been given folders with mobile phone numbers she can reach 24 hours a day if there is a problem. But she adds, as the anxious smile transforms into an anxious laughter:
"I haven’t given it any thought. I simply don’t like to think of anything going wrong."