330 German soldiers are taking part in the EU mission to train the Malian army. The Bundeswehr's role is coordinated in the town of Geltow in eastern Germany, the center for all German military operations abroad.
In the small town of Geltow near Potsdam, the West African state of Mali is not far away. At least not for all those working behind the heavy steel doors at the Bundeswehr's command and control center. At peak times up to 40 members of the German armed forces sit here at their computer monitors which display information from the operational area. A map of Mali shows data on troop movements which is beamed in via satellite almost in real time.
First hand experience
Lieutenant Colonel Dietmar Brückner heads the day shift at the nerve center for all Bundeswehr operations worldwide. He is watching the situation in Mali particularly closely as the Bundeswehr is just beginning its operations there following parliamentary approval from Berlin. The Bundestag approved the dispatch of 330 soldiers, including 80 trainers and 90 medical personnel. Brückner is the first to know if planes land on time and if the deployment is proceeding according to plan. Whenever he receives important information, he reads it out loud. "Then everyone is in the picture," he says while quickly scanning a fresh report from the operations site. Brückner has first hand experience of Bundeswehr operations abroad, he served for several years in the Balkans. This comes in useful when he reads the reports coming in. "Someone sitting in a trench or in a damp tent has a different view of the situation than we do," he says. "We must always remember that."
The Bundeswehr is currently (spring 2013) active in 13 countries. All operations are coordinated at the Geltow command and control center near Potsdam
Preparations in record time
Knowing how the soldiers feel when in the field is also important for Lieutenant Colonel Jens Konrad. During his 14-hour working days he's been making sure that the right number of soldiers and the right amount of material reached Mali so that the training program could start on schedule. That meant a race against time for Konrad. He had less than 16 weeks to accomplish what normally takes a year. "Someone who starts from scratch and is not familiar with the way the Bundeswehr functions in Germany and abroad would soon find himself overwhelmed by the demands of this operation," Konrad told DW.
Training soldiers who have never before been on a joint mission normally takes weeks. Konrad's notebook for Mali contains 60 telephone numbers. He's been calling 20 of them every day.
What is particularly challenging for chief coordinator Konrad is the many unpredictable elements involved in planning. For example, how well-equipped will the Malian recruits be? To prevent any unpleasant surprises, he gave orders for additional material to be sent in advance of the arrival of the Bundeswehr trainers.
"If I were to wait and then find out that the Malian soldiers have next to nothing, the training program would suffer and would have to be postponed for two weeks," he explained.
Planning for every eventuality is also part of Dirk Stoelten's daily work. The trained doctor coordinates everything to do with medical care for the German soldiers in Mali.
He makes sure that no one leaves without the necessary vaccinations. The risk of catching an infectious disease in Mali is high.
"Mali is one of the countries with the highest risk of malaria. There are many other infectious diseases which the Malian population regularly suffer from and we have to protect our soldiers from these," he said.
A medical team went to Mali at the start of the year to inspect a number of hospitals. This followed discussions with the armed forces of France, Austria and Hungary over who should bring what. 40 German medical orderlies and doctors have been working on setting up a field hospital with a runway. For this, 160 tonnes of material were flown to Mali. According to Stoelten, it includes "everything that can be found in a German hospital's emergency reception or in a German operating theater." This ensures that in the event of suicide bomb attacks or other acts of aggression, at least emergency medical treatment can be provided.”
The real test was scheduled for the beginning of April, when the first Malian recruits were due to arrive at the Koulikoro camp, 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the Malian capital, Bamako. But even if everything goes according to plan, the command and control center will remain on high alert. In four months' time, the soldiers will be replaced by a fresh group and the Geltow team will be kept on their toes, making sure the exchange functions smoothly.