When the problems of Chad became a human rights issue, and the UN asked for Irish troops to help, the Government said yes.
As the only country with 51 years of continuous service with the UN, some of it in Africa, Ireland sent the first European troops to Chad. With experience and expertise gained in troubled areas as diverse as the Congo, Kuwait, Sinai, Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, East Timor, and Liberia, the Irish deployed in Chad in 2008.
Chad is a land-locked country in north central Africa, and is nearly the size of Alaska. Its neighbours are Libya, Niger, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Nigeria.
It gets its name from Lake Chad, which lies on the borders of Niger and Nigeria, with a desert in the north that runs into the Sahara Desert.
Chad is the fifth poorest country in Africa, and the influx of refugees from Darfur in the Sudan caused the problems for the people of Chad to escalate. Refugee camps and IDP (Internally Displaced Persons ) camps sprung up, bringing with them starvation, banditry, and the abuse of human rights. Goz Beida, in the Irish AO (Area of Operations ), is one such village that was built for 6,000 people but is home to 26,000 local and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons ).
100 Irish Infantry Battalion is deployed to the Sector South AO on the outskirts of Goz Beida in Chad, and along with a Finnish infantry company the Irish cover an area almost the size of the Republic of Ireland which has the largest number of refugee and IDP camps in the UN mission MINURCAT area.
The main mission of the unit is to create a safe and secure environment for refugees, IDPs, and NGOs (Non Government Officials ) and thereby allow them freedom of movement within the AO. This involves intensive patrolling of the AO in order to create a highly visual presence. It is this strong visual presence that gives people the confidence to move freely around the country.
As you can imagine this is a difficult task for the combined Irish and Finnish Battalion but one which is undertaken in a professional and dedicated manner, regardless of the challenges.
And there are many challenges here in Chad, with weather that changes from 57 degrees heat and burning sun, to monsoon rain that leaves floods of water and mud in its wake. Throw in sand, thunder and lightening, humidity of 93 per cent, and that will give some idea of the changing weather conditions.
The local wildlife can be quite deadly as well. There are somewhere in the region of 13 types of poisonous snakes in the locality which can be fatal to humans, and four types of scorpion and baboons have been spotted from time to time by troops on patrol.
The rebels and bandits are also a problem, but this is a Chapter 7 Peace enforcement mission, with robust rules of engagement and armour to back up the UN mandate.
The patrols are tough affairs for the troops involved. Travelling in the back of Mowag Armour is not the most comfortable experience to begin with. As there are no roads it is very rough travelling, and the searing heat turns the metal of the Mowag into a cooker. The bottles of water stored in the back of these for the crew get so hot they could almost be used to make tea, and indeed, the engines are used to heat the ration pack meals for eating.
The local people’s attitude towards our troops is friendly; they understand that the presence of the Irish UN troops has all but stopped the banditry and abuse of their human rights.
The issue of UXOs, or unexploded devices is another dangerous task carried out by the Irish troops in our area. There are thousands of these devices in Chad, and the death and destruction that have been done to innocent people, including children, over the years is quite shocking.
At the end of the day the task of protecting the people and bringing some normality to their lives is what we have to do. Our troops are highly trained, well equipped, well motivated, and more than capable of undertaking the gruelling task at hand.
People are what is important, whether it is the people of Chad and the refugees we are here to protect, or our soldiers from Ireland who are here to protect them. Patrols, protection duty, unexploded devices, rebels or bandits, the Irish Soldiers of MINURCAT will continue to carry out their mission in the finest traditions of the past 51 years.
And whatever challenges come our way we will deal with them regardless.