With the arrival of the first Bundeswehr transport plane in Uganda, the German military begins its limited peacekeeping mission as part of the EU contingent sent to maintain stability in strife-torn Congo.
German Transall cargo planes will be heading for Uganda as part of its Congo peacekeeping mission.
The German military’s first transport plane touched down in Entebbe, Uganda, on Friday, loaded with materials for the French-led EU troops deployed across the border in the northeastern region of Congo. The arrival of the Transall cargo plane marks the start of a limited military mission, which was approved by German parliament two weeks ago.
The German troops themselves will never see the war-torn country they are supposedly helping to stabilize. Although the Bundestag voted nearly unanimously on June 18 to allow up to 350 German soldiers to participate in what is being called the European Union’s first peacekeeping mission outside Europe’s borders, it stipulated that no German will set foot in the heavily-embattled Congo. The mission, therefore, is largely a gesture of goodwill, a hand offered to European neighbors.
Indirect route to peacekeeping
Three to five times a week, the sky over Entebbe will rumble as the slightly antiquated C-160 Transall planes – the German airforce’s only cargo carriers -- descend for landing. They are carrying food, drinking water and replacement parts for EU troops stationed in nearby Congo.
The trip to Entebbe in Uganda is long and laborious for the old Transall machines, which first entered service in the 1960s. From Germany, the planes take off on an indirect route with refueling stops over France, Crete, Egypt and Djibouti, before arriving two days later at their destination. Once in Uganda, the planes turn around and fly right back to their home bases.
The spokesman for the German airforce, Lieutenant Colonel Günter Katz, told Deutsche Welle that Germany has not even set up a temporary base in Entebbe because the airforce crew is only in Uganda for a few brief hours.
"We don’t have any Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in Entebbe. We fly in there with our crew – that’s five men per machine. The unloading of the planes is left in the hands of the French forces, German troops are not involved. That means, we are deployed there for one to two hours and then there is no one," he said describing Germany’s participation in the mission.
That means Germany only provides transportation, and that, in turn, only goes as far as Uganda. The region around Bunia in Congo, where all the fighting is taking place, is still a good distance away. But the German planes are prohibited from flying into the actual field of deployment owing to the area’s poor infrastructure and security reasons.
"It is not possible for them to fly in there nonstop, land and then fly back out," Katz explained. "There are only a limited number of landing fields and these have their own specific limitations," he said.
Katz added that the French, who are overseeing the EU mission which is being conducted within the framework of the United Nations, understood the logistical obstacles and were not opposed to Germany just flying to Uganda and leaving the further transport of materials up to others.
Of course security is also an underlying concern. Only a week prior to the vote on the Congo mission, Germany received its first shock connected to overseas military operations: four Bundeswehr soldiers had been killed in a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, where 2,400 German troops are deployed as part of the International Security Assistance Force. The attack, which also severely injured 21 others, drove home the risks involved with peacekeeping missions in unstable regions.
In the days leading up to the parliamentary vote on Congo, high-level defense officials also expressed their unease over the nature of the conflict, in which countless young children have often been pressed into service as soldiers. "In Congo, we are dealing with drugged child soldiers who have no respect for human life whatsoever, and I don't want our soldiers to find themselves in a position where they will have to shoot at some of these children in self-defense," said Defense Minister Peter Struck in justification for Germany’s limited offer of transport and logistical help.
All totaled there are about 100 German soldiers participating in the peacekeeping mission, far fewer than the 350 originally called for in the mandate. Eight German officers are lending their support in the headquarters for the EU Congo mission in Paris, and one MedEvac Airbus -- a fully-equipped emergency flying hospital -- based in Cologne has been placed on alert.
The German parliament restricted the mandate to three months, a time frame Lieutenant Colonel Katz is certain will not be prolonged. "We are assuming that the mission will be over on September 1."
With such a short time frame and a limited field of operation, Germany has intentionally placed restrictions on its contribution to the peacekeeping mission. In the end it is not much more than a political signal of support to its neighbor France and the other EU members who are sending troops into the battlefield.