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The UN's Vietnam.

Desperately in search of a mission, a clutch of Canadian generals dressed in fatigues were photographed milling around in the noonday sun at a dusty roadside in Zaire in December 1996, as tens of thousands of Hutu refugees streamed past to cross the border into Rwanda. The latest victims of Central Africa's endless wars, they were on their way home after spending months in squalid refugee camps around Lake Kivu, brutalized by the Interhamwe, a murderous rag-tag militia. Moved by their plight, Canada's Prime Minister ordered the generals to hurriedly organize a relief effort, which might, incidentally, restore the Canadian Forces' battered reputation following the Somalia affair. Fortunately, the crisis had resolved itself, at least for the time being.

The last time Canadians had served in that part of the world Zaire was known as the Congo. Then, as now, the country was sliding into anarchy, driven by warring factions. "I learned something very important in the Congo," a young Canadian lieutenant wrote some 40 years ago. "I saw good food, sent by aid agencies, rotting on the docks. I saw fields with wonderfully fertile soil, unplanted. The problem in the Congo was not the lack of potential for feeding the people. It was the chaos caused by fighting."

A sprawling territory of mountains and equatorial forest, rich in natural resources and inhabited by more than 200 ethnic groups, the Congo had been ruled with a stern hand since King Leopold of Belgium acquired it as a personal fiefdom in 1885. Hastily granted independence in 1960, at a time when there was not a single Congolese in the senior ranks of the army or civil service, illiteracy was almost universal. The concept of national unity being new and unfamiliar, the country collapsed into chaos as competing factions bid for influence and power.

The civil service, bereft of senior administrators, most of whom had decamped for Belgium, ceased to function, and the army, ill-trained and undisciplined, mutinied. Mineral-rich Katanga province seceded with the blessing of foreign mining cartels and soon Kasai followed suit. Fighting broke out and newly elected President Patrice Lumumba was forced to call for UN military assistance to help restore order.

A hastily assembled force, L'Operation des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC), was dispatched and soon became involved in the UN's first peacekeeping war as it attempted to crush Katangan separatism. Launched at the height of the Cold War, it was the largest, most audacious, and most controversial UN operation to date. Accused of pro-Western bias by the Soviets and condemned for intervening in the internal affairs of an independent nation by the non-aligned states, ONUC so divided the UN that the latter's very existence was threatened.

Initially, Canada showed no enthusiasm for ONUC participation, as the country's economy was in recession and the forces were already over-extended and short of personnel. But, giving in to almost daily requests from New York and increasing public pressure, the Diefenbaker government reluctantly agreed to provide a signals squadron of 280 officers and men. Designated 57 Signal Unit, the first troops arrived in Leopoldville, the capital, on 15 August 1960, where they were promptly taken into custody by the Congolese, stripped and beaten with rifle butts. "Better beaten than eaten," one battered and bruised trooper told reporters. Despite diplomatic protests from Ottawa, similar incidents would occur in the months to come.

Like the Canadians, the main force, under the command of Major General Carl Carlsson van Horn of Sweden, immediately ran into difficulties. With 20,000 troops from 30 countries, van Horn complained that his command was little more than an armed mob "in which logic, military principles--even common sense --took second place to political factors." Each contingent arrived with different weapons, vehicles, and communications systems. "There seemed to be no form of military planning cell in the UN Secretariat which could plan and produce the type of military force required to bring peace to a country which had been reduced to chaos overnight," he wrote. "Troops arrived, officers arrived, and nobody knew quite what they were supposed to do." He likened his mission to giving first aid to a rattlesnake.

Van Horn and most of his staff spoke no French, the lingua franca of the country. His Canadian subordinates described him as "confined to quarters and ... in fact, non-effective." Bilingual Canadians handled telephones and codes and were the only officers able to speak to Congolese government officials. Van Horn's successor conceded that "the Canadians were vital to his organization and shouldered more than their fair share of the work."

So too did the RCAF, flying obsolete North Star transports between Leopoldville and Pisa, Italy. Canadians on the ONUC air staff included the commanding officer, communications officer, and the chief of air operations.

More than 2000 Canadians served in the Congo between 1960 and 1964, most in small detachments spread out over the length and breadth of the country. Some served with great courage and gallantry. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Mayer and Sergeant J.A. Lessard of the Vandoos were awarded the George Cross for their part in rescuing more than a hundred missionaries and their families at Kisadji in early 1964. Lieutenant Terry Liston was decorated for saving a wounded Congolese soldier in a minefield after prodding his way through the mines with a bayonet.

The Canadians' efficiency was not reflected by their appearance. Peter Worthington of the Toronto Telegram reported the soldiers had a reputation for being friendly and capable but were the scruffiest of all UN troops. "In olive green bush pants and shirts, the Canadians resemble ill-clad refugees," he wrote. "The only creases that trousers hold in this steam-bath climate are wrinkles."

There was little time or call for parade-square smartness as the political situation deteriorated and chaos reigned supreme. On 15 September 1960, President Kasavubu dismissed Prime Minister Lumumba (pictured at right) for allegedly leading the country into civil war "and being a traitor to the state." Lumumba responded by dismissing Kasavubu while General Mobutu, the Army Chief of Staff, and a former sergeant in the Belgian Force Publique, announced that the army was taking over. Lumumba was arrested, tortured and murdered.

Meanwhile, in Katanga, Moise Tshombe was busy recruiting mercenaries to defend his breakaway state. Known as "Les Affreux" (the frightful ones), his force included French paratroopers fresh from defeat in Algeria, South African and Rhodesian adventurers, superannuated Italian Fascists, and German veterans of World War Two "No contradiction, no detected lie, caused Mr. Tshombe the slightest embarrassment," said UN Special Envoy Conor Cruise O'Brien. "He had a paternal compassion for the naivete of anyone who supposed he would tell the truth."

On 15 February 1961, the Security Council sanctioned the use of force. It had never done so before for a peacekeeping operation and would not do so again until the Bosnian and Somali missions were authorized in the 1990s. Katanga was brought to heel after a series of confused and bloody battles claimed the lives of 128 peacekeepers. Another casualty of the fighting was UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, killed in a mysterious plane crash near Ndola.

The ONUC mission petered out with the last troops being withdrawn in July 1964. A month later, Tshombe seized power. He, in turn, was ousted by Mobutu who went on to fashion one of the most tyrannical, corrupt and avaricious regimes in Africa.

Described by O'Brien as "the UN's Vietnam," ONUC violated most of the principles that had governed previous peacekeeping missions, including impartiality and the consent of all parties involved. UN forces were directed "to take all steps necessary in consultation with the Congolese government to provide it with such military assistance as may be necessary." Armed with this vague mandate, the peacekeepers used force, provoking bitter disputes in the General Assembly. As the operation became more costly, both in lives and dollars, the Soviet Union, France, and others refused to commit further resources, or pay their dues, and the UN was brought to the verge of bankruptcy.

Three decades would elapse before the UN dared mount another mission of similar size and complexity--an equally ineffective foray into the former Yugoslavia.
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Title Annotation:Canada's Congo peacekeeping force between 1960 and 1964
Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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