The first two Vietnamese officials who were in South Sudan in Africa for their 14-month international peacekeeping mission with the United Nations have recounted their memorable experiences.
In late May 2014, Vietnam sent its first two officers to the war-torn South Sudan, where the duo served as communications officers with the UN Operations.
They wrapped up their mission successfully in July 2015.
The officers are Lieutenant Colonel Mac Duc Trong, now 45, and Lieutenant Colonel Tran Nam Ngan, 44.
Lt. Col. Trong and Ngan have shared their special experiences withTuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
At 1:00 pm in early June 2014, their plane arrived at Juba International Airport based in the capital of the country ravaged by relentless internal conflicts, violence and bloodshed brought about by two factions of President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice President Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon.
South Sudan gained its independence on July 9, 2011, and became the youngest partitioned country in Africa and the world at that point.
Despite efforts to build a stable government, the country rich in oil remains racially and politically torn with several armed militia in operation.
Unfamiliar looking place
Lt. Col. Ngan revealed that he and his compatriot, Lt. Col. Trong, had immigration procedures completed in the city of Entebbe in Uganda, a landlocked country in East Africa which borders South Sudan to the north.
Entebbe is home to a UN supply base which provides for all of its African missions.
Like other impoverished cities, houses were sparse while restaurants and hotels were littered with gun-wielding wardens, Lt. Col. Ngan observed.
The duo could not reach Juba until one week later.
A 15-seat plane was deployed to carry the two Vietnamese officers to South Sudan.
“Our plane had to turn back and lie in wait for its turn to take off, as another plane had had its wheel broken due to the poor quality of the runway, blocking the way,” Lt. Col. Trong said.
“We waited until the following day for the runway to be cleared.”
Lt. Col. Ngan revealed that Juba International Airport had only shabby terminals, while its landing area was an unoccupied plot.
“The airport strongly reminded me of Lien Khuong and Cam Ranh Airports in Vietnam more than 10 years ago,” he noted.
Lt. Col. Ngan further recalled that contrary to his expectations about an arid African country, he was taken aback by the endless, luxuriant forests on looking down from the plane once airborne.
Also going against the officers’ expectations, the ongoing war was not conspicuous around the capital, though 20,000 civilians were taking refuge at the UN mission and many others were taking shelter beneath the undergrowth.
The only tell-tale sign was the presence of several armored vehicles around the airport.
“Later I found human skulls and bones in the vicinity of forests, which might have been brought there by wolves,” Ngan further recounted.
The UN’s public relations department sent its Cambodian staffers to welcome and take photos of Lt. Col. Ngan and Trong as it was the first time ever that the UN peacekeeping force had been joined by Vietnamese officers.
Several UN staff members were quite inquisitive. A Ukrainian UN policeman disclosed that his father had been an expert in wartime Vietnam.
The man gifted the two Vietnamese officers each a Ukrainian logo attached to his UN peacekeeping uniform.
As they later found out, UN peacekeeping officers donned their own country’s uniforms and only shared the UN berets and badges.
Lt. Col. Trong and Ngan later discovered that UN staffers habitually collect and exchange currency, emblems and logos among one another, as the alliance is characterized by multiple nationalities.
The UN mission in South Sudan for example has officers from 93 countries.
The Cambodian officer then guided Lt. Col. Trong and Ngan to their quarters, pointing to two empty beds, which he had saved exclusively for the two Vietnamese men.
“The quarter was always packed with people who arrived and left. The Cambodian guy must have had profoundly positive feelings for Vietnam to save us two beds, as others slept in a sleeping bag,” Lt. Col. Ngan disclosed.
That afternoon, much to his delight, the officer chanced upon a bed of ‘rau muong,’ a common vegetable in Vietnam, and boiled it for his and Lt. Col. Trong’s first meal at the UN.
“While the UN takes care of its staffers’ meals if they go in units, communications officers who arrive individually have to prepare or buy their own food on the organization’s payments,” Ngan explained.
He added that they had to book necessities two weeks in advance with orders of at least a few kilograms each time.
The canteen inside the UN base offered monotonous European dishes which the two Vietnamese men found impossible to get by in the long run.
A few days later, the Cambodian man escorted them to a local market, where beef and a wide array of fish were available for sale. South Sudan is crisscrossed with multiple rivers.
However, there were only a limited number of vegetables, including wild leaves, which Lt. Col. Ngan found unfit for consumption.
He later discovered more wild ‘rau muong,’ ‘rau den’ beds and papaya.
Locals’ meals lacked veggies, and mostly included food cooked in liquid form like porridge, Lt. Col. Ngan said.
Though South Sudan is three times the size of Vietnam, Juba boasts only two buildings higher than six or seven stories.
“We used the buildings, which were administrative offices, as landmarks to avoid getting lost,” Lt. Col. Ngan said.
The entire capital has only 60 kilometers of asphalt streets, while the remaining are mostly dirt roads.
Despite being an underprivileged country, a large number of cars, including luxury ones, and a few motorbikes could be seen on the streets.
It is alleged that people used the UN’s early aid to buy the luxury cars. There are also few foreign banks.
Ngan and others had accounts at Kenya’s KCB Bank housed inside the UN base.