by DAVID AXE
Dungu, Congo — The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of Western Europe. It’s thickly forested and has only 300 miles of paved roads. For everyday Congolese, just traveling between towns can be hugely inconvenient. For the U.N. peacekeeping force, transportation is more than inconvenient: it’s a problem of strategic proportions. If MONUSCO cannot move, it cannot protect millions of vulnerable Congolese in the country’s remote eastern provinces, where an alphabet soup of rebel groups rape, murder and pillage while pursuing obscure ethnic and political agendas or mere survival.
More than most military forces, the roughly 20,000-strong MONUSCO relies on aviation. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dungu, a town just south of Sudan in Congo’s northeast. Two years ago, the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rampaged across the territory: the death toll was in the thousands. MONUSCO built garrisons in some of the most endangered towns, including Dungu, and today LRA attacks have subsided though not entirely ended as the rebels shift to new targets. A Moroccan battalion based in Dungu protects the town and escorts humanitarian workers on local missions of mercy.
The MONUSCO airstrip, a few miles outside of town, is buzzing with activity on the morning of September 20. A green and brown Bangladeshi air force C-130 lands, unloads cargo, loads passengers and turns right around to take off. Another C-130 arrives, this one wearing the U.N.’s distinctive white paint scheme. Between fixed-wing movements, Russian and Bangladeshi helicopters take off and land. Virtually anything the Bangladeshis and humanitarians need must come by air. The airstrip averages a dozen movements a day.
The airfield was built by Indonesian army engineers last year and today the Bangladeshi air force is the primary occupant and operator. The Bangladeshis were an obvious choice, having been in eastern Congo since 2003. C-130s and other cargo planes are based at larger airfields and only visit Dungu, but a pair of Bangladeshi Mi-17 choppers call the gravel airstrip home. Aviators deploy for yearlong rotations. “We perform the roles and tasks given by MONUSCO, which include cargo resupply, troop movements and medical transport — which includes medevac and casevac — and recon missions, which means surveillance flights,” says Squadron Leader Mahbubul Alam, a 32-year-old Mi-17 pilot.
Alum climbs into his white Mi-17 along with his co-pilot, engineer and gunners and lifts off with a cargo of food for peacekeepers in a nearby town. The Mi-17’s twin engines whip up a cloud of coarse red sand. Two hours later Alam is back in Dungu. Thunderclouds are gathering and the pilot seem relieved to be on the ground.
“The difficult situation is the terrain itself of the Congo,” Alam adds. “And, as you know, the weather is always unpredictable. Because of the terrain the flights themselves are risky. In areas there are lots of ground threats, which is stress for the pilots.” But the stress among those on the ground — and among Congolese civilians — would be even greater if not for the Bangladeshis’ hard work.