He is son of Paraic and Bernie McDonald, Greenfields, Pontoon Road, and has served overseas previously in Lebanon in 1984, 1993 and 1996 followed by two years in the Middles East serving in Syria, Lebanon and Israel from 2005 to 2007. He deployed to Chad in January 2010 and will serve there until June 2010.
Kevin wrote: "It is currently 40 degrees at 8 a.m. and we are expecting 54 degrees today. Needless to say a cold 'medium' in Johnnies would go down well, unfortunately this is a 'dry' mission so cold water is the best we can hope for."
"HELLO Zero this is Two Niner, mobile from your location, Two Niner out." With these few words I moved my armoured column out of the confines of our UN camp in Chad, into the soft light of an African dawn and headed off on a two-day patrol. I had under my command almost 100 soldiers comprising 52 Irish and 45 Finnish.
I had seven Irish MOWAG 8 wheeled armoured cars, including one ambulance variant, five Finnish SISU
Six-wheeled armoured cars, two Scania 6x6 Trucks and a SISU 8x8 truck. It took nearly ten minutes for the convoy to clear camp and once we were out on patrol it would stretch to over a kilometre.
Our mission was to visit a number of villages where it was hoped some of the thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, currently living in transient camps scattered throughout Chad, might return to, now that the rebel activity had almost ceased.
Chad is a vast landlocked country, in central Africa. It is bordered by Libya to the North, Sudan to the East, the Central African Republic to the South, Cameroon and Nigeria to the Southwest and Niger to the West.
Comprising some 1,284,000 square kilometres (496,000 square miles) it is approximately one and a half times the size of France. It is home to over 200 ethnic groups with Islam and Christianity the most widely practised religions and French and Arabic the official languages.
The country is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked fifth poorest by the United Nations Human Development Index, and almost 80 per cent of Chadians live in poverty as subsistence farmers or nomads.
Years of civil war and sporadic fighting with rebels from Sudan have taken their toll on the country. It has been affected by a humanitarian crisis since 2001 and at present has some 280,000 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan, 55,000 from the Central African Republic and 175,000 internally displaced Chadian refugees.
Navigating from a bouncy armoured car on a hand held GPS in 45-degree heat is a tough but necessary skill that needs to be acquired sooner rather than later.
The problems of trying to turn a large armoured column in dense scrub and bush mean that you need to get it right more times than wrong. We reached the village of Karo after a long and dusty 30kms that took us nearly three hours.
We generally establish a temporary base about 3kms from any village and then travel in to meet the elders with a just a few armoured cars.
I took my interpreter, a CIMIC (Civilian, Military Co-Operation) officer and some soldiers for local security and entered the village to meet with the Chef de Village, who is the senior person in charge of the village.
At village meetings like this, which often include all the village elders, we discuss their problems, mainly the lack of water, education and health care. Whilst MINURCAT has no facilities to alleviate or address problems such as these, we do report on all our meetings with villagers to the relevant NGO's (Non Government Organisations such as GOAL, Oxfam, MSF, World Food Programme, etc.) It is instructive to note how happy these people seem with their lot, which to our Western eyes is practically nothing. They make a living by tilling the land and harvesting fruit and vegetables. In the poorer villages, away from any links with larger towns, the villagers themselves take it upon themselves to build a straw hut and teach their children elementary French, Arabic, reading and writing.
Big smiles, big armoured cars
Leaving Karo we had to cross a wide, dried up river bed and that took nearly two hours as we had to winch the fitter's truck through soft sand. This truck is quite heavy as it contains all our vehicle spares including spare wheels, oils, engine parts, etc., as we need to be as self-supporting as possible.
This type of obstacle crossing has become second nature to us and indeed it is somewhat of a spectator sport for the locals as they see large armoured cars manoeuvring through soft sand to hook a winch on to bogged vehicles. As the heat of the midday sun reaches 46 degrees we pick our way steadily through some rough scrub and undergrowth as we follow a bearing towards out next village.
We reached Atichane by one o'clock and had another meeting as the full brunt of the African midday sun infiltrated every pore of our bodies. Here the locals were experiencing the same types of problems, yet they were happy to see us and the kids came to look at the strange soldiers with big smiles and big armoured cars.
It is striking to see such happiness in what is abject poverty. Finishing our meeting we clambered back into armoured cars that were now so hot that you could burn your hand on the armour. After following some animal tracks we slowly picked our way through denser scrub and picked up over three punctures as we trundled through the undergrowth.
Aware of the necessity of establishing a patrol harbour by mid afternoon so as to maximise the remaining light we found a clearing, circled the armoured cars, carried out a clearance patrol and set up our small individual tents.
Soon the bush was infused with the smell of ration packs heating up on the roofs of our cars, as the crews used the residual heat of the armour to cook a meal while they carried out their end of day checks on the cars. Night falls rapidly in the bush and by six o'clock, the night sky had draped itself over our temporary camp.
Insects, birds and animals seemed to serenade the rising moon as soldiers packed away kit and prepared for a move out at first light. By eight o'clock, gentle snoring was added to the myriad collection of night noises. Lying in the tent, feeling the dissipating heat waft up from the ground, staring at the night sky, it was easy to think of early explorers surrounded by wagon trains experiencing the same sense of being a very small part of a vast landscape that stretched out further than the eye could see or imagine.
Dawn came with a slight chill, chill being a relative word in the middle of Africa, but never the less it was a welcome start to a day that promised to be reaching 50 degrees by midday. A quick coffee and snack and we moved out, letting the convoy stretch out behind us. A scramble on foot up a nearby ridge line afforded a glimpse of the terrain ahead and at last the scrub and small trees opened out to a landscape that suggested an average speed of more that the 3km an hour we were currently doing.
We reached the village of Gandagire by eleven am and apart from a GPS Lat Long reading, the only indicator that people had once lived here was an abandoned child's shoe made of plastic and some burnt stones. There was none of the usual evidence of huts and corrals, just an eerie emptiness and our interpreter informed us that over three years ago a rebel militia operating from Sudan had crossed the border and killed quite a number of the villagers.
Life can be nasty, brutish and short here as in other parts of Africa and we slowly departed Southwards to our next destination KuKuAngarana, a Forward Operating Base of ours where we would get a chance to carry out some much needed maintenance on the cars before heading back to our main camp here in Goz Beida.
The distance was 38kms and it looked quite straightforward until the trucks started to bog down in soft sand. What followed was a long and tortuous two hours of pulling, dragging and winching until we had all 15 vehicles past the obstacle and once more we threaded our way Southwards eventually picking up a faint track that hinted we were getting close to our forward base.
Rolling along towards the base we skirted the dusty airfield that supplies the nearby UN and NGO facilities. As the evening wind picked up, we were treated to the sight of a rapidly building sand tornado that jinked its way furiously along the sandy runway before dissipating rapidly into the bush.
Armoured car crews finished changing two more punctures as we rehydrated, eat some rations and clambered back into the cars for the last 35kms to our camp. The track was rutted and dusty and we left a long gritty cloud that marked our progress and spiralled into the evening sky, covering all in its path, cars and crews alike before settling back onto the track. The sun was dipping low on the horizon as I radioed to our headquarters "Zero this is Two Niner, back at base and closing down, Two Niner out."
Thus ended a normal 48-hour patrol, taking in some very harsh unforgiving terrain, but allowing us to experience the trials and tribulations of some of the poorest people in Africa. For most of us it is an experience that will not be forgotten.