At the French army airbase in the Senegalese capital Dakar, turbines are humming. It is midday and extremely hot, a warm wind sweeps up the dust from the ground. Nearby, passenger planes take off and land at Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport. A contingent of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, has been stationed at the French base since January. Their job is to provide logistical support for the AFISMA mission (African-led International Support Mission to Mali) as well as for the French troops taking part in Operation Serval.
Together with the Malian army, the French forces are fighting against Islamists in the north of the country. The Bundeswehr provides logistical support in the form of three Transall transport planes and a military Airbus for midair refuelling.
Inside the base, just behind the checkpoints, army tents have been pitched. A circular hut, roofed with straw, serves as a canteen for the German troops. But the main point of interest for visitors is the vast hangar. It is empty at the moment as two of the transport planes are on their way to the Malian capital Bamako.The German soldiers sometimes refer to them romantically as "angels of the air" or more prosaically "Bundeswehr beasts of burden."
A section of the hangar serves as a workshop for maintenance and repairs. A group of Bundeswehr engineers are working on a truck. For security reasons, they remain anonymous. "This is an ABD repair truck," says one of them. "That stands for Aircraft Battle Damage. We take the truck with us so we can quickly repair anything that's been damaged. It's equipped with just about every tool needed for quick maintenance work."
Sergeant-Major Martin Gesenhoff takes care of the numerous German and African journalists who apply to visit the base. He leads a group to the runway where the third Transall plane is standing. One of the three planes is always on the ground as a reserve. It measures some 32 meters (105 feet) and can carry a load of around 16 tonnes (35,274 pounds). This can include trucks or small tanks. A dozen mechanics are giving the wings a routine check. "Our three planes get a thorough check-up every three days. When the engineers give the green light, then the machine is ready to fly," one of the men tells the journalists. In the cockpit another mechanic explains the functions of the many buttons and display panels. "Here at the front is the fuel pressure gauge for the engine which has sensors attached."
The Bundeswehr contingent in Dakar currently consists of 90 soldiers. "We are responsible for logistical back-up and with our transport planes we support the AFISMA mission in Mali. That means we convey military material and also aid supplies from various ECOWAS states to Mali," says Sergeant-Major Gesenhoff. ECOWAS stands for Economic Community of West African States and is in charge of the AFISMA mission. "We can transport soldiers or vehicles to the operations zone", adds Major Gunnar Kratz who took over command of the German troops in Dakar in February.
A mission with a difference
This is not the first time that the Bundeswehr has been deployed in Africa. On several occasions Transall planes have transported aid material. Germany also plays an active role in the EU-led missions Atalanta and EUCAP Nestor which combat piracy off the coast of Djibouti at the other end of the African continent.
"But this mission is different," says Major Kratz. "It's the first time that we have been part of such a large operation." Eight ECOWAS member states have contributed some 4,000 soldiers to AFISMA. They are supported by Gemany and six other European countries. Help also comes from the US and Russia.
At the airbase in Dakar, the soldiers are all from Europe. "We have excellent multinational coperation here," says Martin Gesenhoff. "Our French hosts are always ready to help and we get on well with the troops from other countries such as Spain, Denmark and Britain."
The German soldiers will remain in Dakar for at least a year. If the Mali crisis is over by then, they and their "Bundeswehr beasts of burden" can fly back to Germany.