Chad Diary

Handover complete, it's time to leave
Tue, Feb 10, 2009

CHAD DIARY: AS WE complete our last few days in Camp Ciara before rotating home, it’s time for reflection and review. My armoured personnel carrier (APC) covered 4,087km since arriving 141 days ago, in a country with no roads, no infrastructure and where travel times are measured in days, not hours. I took part in seven long-range patrols over 40 days and too many short-range patrols to count, writes LIEUT SEÁN BYRNE

Our last patrol was a short two-day affair around our area of responsibility to introduce the new commanders to the various village leaders. Thankfully, I get down to Le Boutike to introduce Bako Moustafa to our replacements. It’s been a busy handover period, passing on operational updates, accounts and equipment to our replacements.

We ran through numerous potential scenarios, showing them what methods we used. I find myself using a phrase to reassure the new arrivals – one that was absolutely no comfort to me when I arrived. Whether it is in relation to the heat, the early mornings or the daily routine, it’s “You’ll get used to it”. I recognise the unimpressed glances I get in return.

In time, they will acclimatise and get their “Chadability” up and running.

One of the first lessons I learned after being commissioned was to always keep on the good side of your senior NCOs. These men and women make it happen at the sharp end, and show new officers the practicalities of motivating, working with and leading soldiers.

I may outrank them, but when they offer advice, I listen. Two very important people who worked tirelessly throughout the trip were Company Sgt Derek Allen and Company Quartermaster Sgt Lar Bracken. My platoon and I worked hard and learned a lot about ourselves, the Army and the difficulty of life in Chad.

It is a strange feeling knowing this will be the last time I will work with many of my platoon and company, considering we worked and lived in such close proximity for the past six months. We all disperse to different units and barracks in Ireland. I leave Camp Ciara on Friday and fly to N’Djamena. We are due to fly home on Monday, and will therefore be spending the weekend in Camp Europa. A trip to a swimming pool has been promised. At this point I’m very much looking forward to going home and having some time off. I wish the 99 Infantry Battalion a safe and successful mission. I can say without doubt that we’ve made a positive impact in our large area of operations. People’s lives are that bit more secure because of our presence.

Chad has been a positive experience for me, but I sympathise with the locals caught in this dispute. Like in Liberia it is these locals, particularly women and children, who suffer the most. And, like with Liberia, I will follow their progress in the newspapers long after I’m gone.

I may be here again. Other possible missions in other countries have been mentioned. I will apply to go overseas again soon, hopefully within the next 12 months.

At that point I will be turning 30, will have three overseas tours completed and am hopeful about promotion. Time to evaluate career and life goals and decide what direction to take.

In the coming six weeks I have no doubt my civilian friends will be sick of me, wanting to go out on a work night. It’s at that point I’ll provide a welcome distraction for my Army classmates studying for their finals in NUI Galway. But after a successful handover, for now my thoughts are solely occupied on going home, spending time with my family and enjoying my leave.

Lieut Seán Byrne arrived home in Ireland yesterday. The 99 Infantry Battalion, under the command of Lieut Col Joe McDonagh , has replaced his unit – the 98th. They are deployed for four months and Capt James Cahill of Reconnaissance Company will write a diary on his experiences for The Irish Times .

© 2009 The Irish Times
I'm leading my troops into the African desert

Thu, Mar 05, 2009

CHAD DIARY: Lt Seán Byrne is back home. Capt James Cahill takes up the story of the Defence Forces’ European Union peacekeeping operation in Chad. This is his first dispatch

WE TEST fired our weapons just before we left Camp Ciara in our Close Reconnaissance Vehicles (CRV), it’s to make sure we don’t get stoppages if we need to use them but it’s also a useful way of focusing the mind.

The thick, powdery red dust of the Chadian desert is kicked up by my forward vehicles and has covered my goggles already.

Thankfully I had wrapped my scarf tightly around my nose and mouth or I’d be choking right now, the smothering heat is preferable to the smothering dust.

The morning sun is already hitting 40 degrees and my pasty Irish skin is feeling it, factor 50 or not. This is my first time commanding a patrol, on my first trip overseas.

I’m leading my troops into the African desert with rebels and bandits known to operate in the area.

It’s a strange feeling, a mixture of adrenaline, fear, excitement and self-doubt. Have I done everything I can to get my troops ready for this? Will they follow me? This is it, this is Chad.

As the cavalry troop commander for the 99th Infantry Battalion, my specific preparation for getting this far started last June where I was put on courses along with some of the soldiers I would be serving with.

These covered training on the new CRVs, our protection, our mobility and when out of camp – our homes – for the duration of trip. Lots of getting down and dirty with field reconnaissance and, in my case, a cavalry young officers’ course.

Once these were done we were finally ready to begin what is known as “form up” training, where the unit to serve overseas comes together and begins mission specific training to prepare it for deployment.

Given that the political, cultural, medical, operational and environmental conditions are so different to home, we had endless briefings covering cultural awareness, the political situation in Chad, our mission and most importantly for soldiers our rules of engagement, when, how and if we can open fire in a hostile situation.

Along with this we also underwent live fire manoeuvring, first aid, and communications training. This all happened in the freezing, wet Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow, where the battalion assembled for weeks as we carried out final firing practices and a three day mission readiness exercise.

Here the whole unit was exposed to worst case scenarios they could encounter overseas. This serves as the Army’s final assessment at all levels, from the battalion commander to the private soldier, to establish whether or not the unit is ready for deployment and to highlight any potential shortfalls in training.

Following the two weeks leave over Christmas, we paraded in McKee Barracks for Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea, where he wished us the best in our mission and our safe return.

This was the final stage of our form up which is believed by most to be the worst part of any overseas trip.

I’m in Camp Ciara now and glad of every piece of training, every brief, every ambush drill, every recovery drill I have done since last June. It’s four months overseas, but about eight months preparation at home, just to get me and my soldiers to this stage.

The first thing I heard after getting off the aircraft at 4am in N’Djamena was an unmerciful roar. It was the group from the 98th battalion we were replacing, lined up on the tarmac to board our aircraft and head home. This was followed by a customary rendition of “I’m leaving on a jet plane” and another roar of laughter. I better learn the lines because in four months I’ll be clearing my throat.

Over the next few days we were ferried down to Camp Ciara the Irish base in southeastern Chad. The two week handover was critical to ensure the smooth transition from one unit to the next. This handover involves accounting for all equipment such as vehicles, weapons, and ammunition. The standard procedures used, being shown the local area and introductions to the local authorities which is so important to get a first feel for the atmosphere. It gets us new guys finely tuned. We are briefed and rehearsed to the point of boredom at home, but there’s no substitute for the real thing.

On our handover patrols we visited a lot of villages and refugee camps in our area of operation. One of the first things that became apparent to me was that nobody is lying at the side of the road starving to death as is the case in other parts of the continent.

Instead you are met with unsure glances which quickly turn to waves and smiles when they recognise friendly faces. This to me highlighted the unease in the country at the moment and was a real eye-opener.

The following week we officially took over the camp and duties from the 98th, and anxious to get rid of these “veterans” and get stuck into it.

That weekend we were all stuck to the Ireland v France game along with a number of French army signallers also based here. It was projected on to a big screen in the mess hall, which all led to a great atmosphere. A few days later the remainder of our battalion arrived, meaning we were now fully operational and ready to rock.

James Cahill is aged 24 an comes from Barna in Co Galway. He is single and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from NUI Galway. He has five years service in the Army as a cavalry officer. This is his first overseas tour of duty as troop commander with reconnaissance company, 99th Infantry Battalion that deployed to Camp Ciara, in Goz Beida as part of the EUfor Chad/Central African Republic Mission. His home unit is 4th Cavalry Squadron which recently marched out of Connolly Barracks in Longford town when it closed in January. On March 15th the unit will “blue hat” and become part of the UN peacekeeping mission Minurcat that takes over from EUfor, which is a bridging operation

© 2009 The Irish Times
A wake-up kick is all I get for 25th birthday

Fri, Mar 20, 2009

CHAD DIARY: I WAKE with a boot from Corporal Armstrong who tells me politely that it’s time to get up. It’s five in the morning and still dark, about three hours since I went to bed having done sentry duty, and I’m 25 today. This year there will be no hitting the town, because I’m in the middle of the Chadian desert, 5,226km (3,247mls) away from home. A swift kick takes me away from this thought emphasising the need to get up.

Happy Birthday Jim.

It’s the final day of our first patrol as we have been tasked with patrolling up to a town, close to the Sudanese border that crosses straight into the troubled area of Darfur. Given the current political situation in Sudan, the atmosphere on both sides of the border is tense to say the least.

Information reports we have received outline various rebel factions of anything from 2,000 to 5,500 ready to move a few short kilometres away on the far side of the border. And here I am along with an Irish company patrol also thrown into the mix.

In the event of the whole thing “kicking off” between the rebels and ANT (Armée National Tchad), as it did in June of last year, our job as peace enforcers is to ensure that no harm becomes any of the humanitarian organisations, internally displaced persons, or Sudanese refugees in the area. Yesterday we saw the ANT defensive positions who are evidently on high alert.

One of the main reasons Irish troops spend so much of their time patrolling these far out regions is to reassure these people that we are here, they are safe, because we will protect them. The sight of professional EUfor soldiers also deters potentially hostile parties.

Following a quick order from the boss, the crew of “seven-zero” (my vehicle’s radio call-sign), mount up and hit the road. This war-torn country is void of any form of infrastructure, other than a series of intertwined dirt tracks that cross a number of dry river beds, which are potential hazards for vehicles to break down and get bogged. To help avoid this happening the cavalry act as pathfinders operating forward of the main body as a form of advance party.

Our primary role is to navigate for the convoy, which is much easier than you might think as there are no roads for you to take a wrong turn! But the sand is so fine it forms a thick dust cloud hindering visibility and can make breathing difficult, along with ambient heat rising up to mid to high 40s. Drivers are constantly negotiating the unforgiving terrain and on the lookout for local civilians, livestock, and wildlife, which are liable to jump out of the dust cloud in front of vehicles at any stage.

Halfway to our destination, we pull in to another village again to meet the local “players” as before. This pit stop gives drivers a chance to rotate and also carry out a quick check of the car. The 12-week driving course teaching us to drive armoured vehicles not only covers handling difficult terrain, but also and more importantly, ongoing maintenance to keep them in working order because out here they are our lifeline. Any halt by the convoy is done tactically, the vehicles are deployed to offer security and troops are deployed for same.

Two hours later we rolled into camp for much sought after luxuries such as showers and fresh food, but only after vehicles were unpacked, cleaned, filled and restocked for the next mission given that we can be deployed at a moment’s notice. As if to prove this point, as we’re preparing the cars, an operational order comes through stating we’re out again first thing the following morning.

As the commander this time, I’ve just enough time to make a plan and deliver a set of verbal orders for a patrol heading 30km north to escort an explosive ordnance disposal team to destroy a rocket found at a local village. Guess I’ll have to take a raincheck on the birthday cake.

Capt Cahill remains on duty with the Defence Forces in Chad

© 2009 The Irish Times
Ready for any incursion before rainy season starts

Sat, May 09, 2009

CHAD DIARY: TONIGHT WE'RE set up as an over-watch looking down on the local town of Goz Beida. It's 3am and pitch black, but we can see everything we need in various shades of green and red through our night vision.

We have to be self-sufficient, so vehicles are readied with our weapons, ammunition, food and water, so that in an emergency the QRF can tear out the gate. We test this reaction time regularly; things could go bad within hours, with no warning.

A possible incursion from the recently reinforced rebel force on the Sudanese border is now more of an annual "rally" than anything else. They might give it one big push before the three-month wet season, which starts in June. During these months, routes deteriorate greatly, and wadis become virtually impassable.

With eight weeks before the rain, we prepare for the "what if" scenario for Goz Beida, given that it's on the way to N'Djamena, the capital. Should an incursion happen, the lives of humanitarian workers, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) could be in real danger.

The NGO compounds are attractive targets to potential looters as they hold food and fuel. If this happens, the QRF would be launched to evacuate NGO workers from their compounds to the safety of Camp Ciara (if they wish) and then return to town and support troops that would secure refugee and IDP sites as well as NGO equipment and vehicles from theft or vandalism.

Routine operations the QRF carry out are short patrols in the town to monitor the situation and get the general "vibe". These local patrols are an important source of information, as the QRF is the "eyes and ears" for the operations cell in Camp Ciara.

Careful observation and an acute awareness of surroundings in these narrow streets is vital in order to spot indicators that something may be up. Something small such as fewer people at the mosque, lights off in certain compounds or children not going to school are signs we look for.

In the year since EUfor (and now Minurcat, the UN force) has deployed, locals say they have noticed a significant reduction in banditry in the area, but it is still happening. Not tonight, however - not on my watch.

At first light we "bug out" and do a final lap of the town to show we've been here for the night. The sun greets us as we drive through market square, and locals are called to Morning Prayer. Goz Beida wakes up, and locals start about their routines of gathering firewood or opening stalls. Truck drivers emerge from overnight perches under their old trucks and head for prayers.

Chad is the 5th poorest country in the world, and the evidence is stark. There are very few solid buildings in a town with 40,000 inhabitants, living mostly in mud and straw huts. There is a weird blend of stone-age amenities, with a hint of 21st century living. On my first tour of duty overseas I am struck that infrastructure is almost non-existent.

Washing facilities, running water and an electricity grid are luxuries not yet found in Goz Beida. By the look of things, they will not be here soon. It is a hand-to-mouth existence. Yet, free enterprise is responsible for the most prominent feature in the town: a gigantic mobile phone mast. Around town and in Camp Ciara, reception is quite reliable, as my girlfriend will confirm.

On the way home we pass a local on horseback with a spear in one hand listening to a radio in the other. We arrive in camp after a long night and I go to Operations for debriefing.

Normal patrolling, even here in the desert, can become repetitive. But my patrol, flying a UN flag, tells everyone we're watching and ready. Repetition, here meaning the absence of immediate conflict, is a good thing.


Capt Cahill remains on duty with the Defence Forces in Chad

© 2009 The Irish Times

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