Fernando Rodriguez, a Uruguayan Colonel with crinkles around his eyes and perfect manners, speaks softly about his nine months patrolling the Congo jungle.
He has been taking photographs of the people he encounters along the way - child soldiers abused by their commanders, mothers holding dying babies, severely handicapped trying to crawl back home. "Almost everyone in the pictures is trying to smile for the camera," he says. "It only makes me want to cry."
As a member of the multinational United Nation's observer mission in the Congo (MONUC) Rodriguez does not have the mandate to do much more than that. The 550-strong UN force now sprinkled into Africa's so-called "world war" is the source of hope, false expectations, and countless tales that have a tower of Babel quality.
The UN force is in this country to watch the numerous sides to the conflict disengage from their front line positions and move forward to resolving their differences. The observers are unarmed, and while MONUC is also comprised of some 1,000 armed guards, this second group is on the ground solely to protect UN installations, and spends its days patrolling the UN compounds and watching over the UN trucks and planes.
"We are not an intervention force," states Chief of Staff David Meyer plainly. "We are here to verify that the parties are fulfilling their part of the agreement. We have no mandate to place ourselves between them."
There are today an estimated 60,000 Congolese soldiers and 20,000 of their Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian allies fighting against some 30,000 Rwandan soldiers, 6,000 Ugandan troops, tens of thousands of Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels and alongside numerous guerrilla groups each with their own agendas. There are signed accords, there are time tables, and there is of late some good will - but there is no peace enforcement mechanism.
The significance of the operation, Meyer explains, is in its moral weight. "When there are so many parties involved in a conflict the way there is here, one needs an independent body to stand on the world stage and tell the truth. That is what we are doing," he says.
Humanitarian agencies working in the region however argue that the presence of MONUC is creating false expectations and that the villagers cheering the arrival of the motley crew of UN observers believe that these have come to fight off the various military factions and protect the locals. "There is no power willing to risk lives to solve the problem here," criticizes Michel Kassa, head of the UN's humanitarian coordination office in Congo. "If a rebel soldier is harassing three peasants in front of them, the MONUC troops will take notes."
"Not to mention the problem of what language those notes will be in," sighs Ghanaian Colonel George Danso, chief of UN operations in Kissangani. A limited mandate, so it turns out, is only one of the challenges for MONUC. Forty-two countries have contributed troops to the mission, and while all the observers supposedly are familiar with either English or French, communication can still be tricky. Furthermore, the pilots who fly the teams on the newly launched air patrols - mostly Ukrainians who used to fly for the former Soviet Union who have been contracted by the UN - often don't speak a word of either.
"Even when we are all speaking in English we sometimes can't understand each others accents all that well," admits Rodriguez, whose patrol team consists of a Nepalese, an Indian, and an Algerian. These four observers, who share a house in war ravaged Kisangani, say they discover cultural communication problems every day. They have to be careful, says the Colonel, not to offend one another - even by mistake. "I am a big meat eater, pork is my favorite," says the Roman Catholic Rodriguez by way of illustration. "But since Islam forbids pork and Hinduism shuns meat altogether, I have been eating rice and fish every day here. Its not ideal."
One thing most of the troops seem to have in common is homesickness. A majority of the men have left behind wives and children, and with no local phones or postal service, they have almost no means of communicating with them. The divorce rate in such UN missions, says Norwegian air operations officer Vidar Kjelberg, is said to be 78 percent.
Going to the front lines
"Oscar Bravo two, this is Delta Whiskey one. I do not speak French. I repeat. I do not speak French, over and out," comes the crackling voice of Ukrainian co-pilot Dimitry Polayschenko over the radio.
"Put on Sasin" yells the harassed Senegalese flight controller. Soon, Ukrainian Capt. Andre Sasin - in a "I Love Palm Beach" T-shirt - is at the controls of the helicopter. A group of South African technicians - who are also under a private contract with the UN - are sitting around telling sexist jokes with punch lines in Afrikaans. They look over the aircraft and give a thumbs up signal.
Beninian Col. Semegan Legbay Cocou and Tunisian Capt. Foued Mabrouk are to be dropped off in Bumandje. The remote village, like many others, has been cut off by rebel and guerrilla forces for close to three years and it is believed that the conditions there are extremely dire. This two-man MONUC team, which will remain on the ground for three days, is to verify the 15 kilometer disengagement of the forces and see if the original village inhabitants - most of whom fled the bush when the war started - are able to come home.
"The first problem is to find the place," says Captain Sasin, explaining that the positions of the villages are given to the UN by the rebels themselves - and that these often use old maps from the 1950s. "The second problem is to survive the heat and the disease over there," says Coucou, looking nervous and kissing a pin-up of a blonde Russian in a bikini, pasted inside the helicopter for good luck. "And the third problem is that we hope the rebels have actually redeployed," concludes Mabrouk.
At the other side of the runway, Jordanian Col. Mohammed Shibali is waiting for the Hercules plane which is going to fly him out of the Congo. He is going back to his home town of Jerash this week, after a year in Kisangani. "It was alright at times," he reflects, standing around the sweltering airfield. "I learned some things about this crazy country ... and I learned some French." Shibali turns to the white pet parrot he has packaged in a taped up empty mobile phone box and strokes the tiny beak sticking out of the cardboard. "N'est pas mon cherie?" he asks the bird.
"I am taking her home to my children," he explains to the group of MONUC observers standing around him. "I have taught it Arabic."
What does it say? a newly arrived Lieutenant Colonel from the Philippines wants to know. "Ma Salame ya Congo," calls out the bird, as if on cue. "Goodbye Congo. May peace be with you."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor