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Vietnam’s UN peacekeepers in Africa – P5: Rescue campaigns

Vietnam’s UN peacekeepers in Africa – P5: Rescue campaigns

Sunday, October 02, 2016, 16:00 GMT+7

One of Vietnam’s two first-ever army officers on UN peacekeeping missions was engaged in a large-scale campaign to rescue the organization’s beleaguered staffers in late 2014.

>> Vietnam’s UN peacekeepers in Africa – P4: Lurking perils

>> Vietnam’s UN peacekeepers in Africa – P3: Malakal obsession

>> Vietnam’s UN peacekeepers in Africa – P2: First mission

>> Vietnam’s UN peacekeepers in Africa – P1: Flying to war-torn country

In August 2014, intense racial conflicts broke out in Maban County in the northern region of South Sudan, as members of one race were tracking down and trying to kill those of the enemy races.

They also threatened to kill natives belonging to foe groups who were working for international organizations.

Local militia besieged the headquarters of several international humanitarian organizations including Red Cross, World Vision, World Food Program, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and World Health Organization (WHO) which had maintained aid to more than 150,000 refugees in Maban.

Eight such staffers had been killed on grounds of racial feuds.

The aggressive militiamen demanded members of the enemy race be brought out for persecution.

The UN office in New York requested the Mission in South Sudan adopt protective measures immediately.

As there was no UN base in Maban, troops in Melut County, located in South Sudan's Upper Nile State, were deployed.

The communications board then dispatched two officers, including Sr. Lt. Col. Mac Duc Trong, one of Vietnam’s two first-ever UN peacekeepers, who then accompanied an Indian infantry company during an express 300-kilometer march to Bunj, the heart of Maban, to the rescue of 200 staffers of international humanitarian organizations.

UN bodies also ordered the entire international relief force to be taken in armored vehicles to the UN command center in another country for their own safety.

“It’s the first time since my arrival in South Sudan that I had been engaged in a mission with such a formidable UN deployment,” Trong said.   

Half of the company, or nearly 100 troopers, were deployed together with more than 10 armored vehicles.

“Firing was allowed if there were any UN casualties,” Sr. Lt. Col. Trong noted.

Upon the rescue troops’ arrival, an upsetting spectacle unfolded as hundreds of belligerent men were seen besieging the international relief organizations’ offices.

The entire UN staff, who were staying put behind the two-meter gate, had been cornered for four days.

“The militiamen, armed with poor fire power, or only AK guns, were intimidated at the sight of our infantry vehicles,” Sr. Lt. Col. Trong recalled.

“The relief workers panicked terribly, as if they were jerked back from death, after living in constant fear of getting killed at any time, though they were given adequate food and water.”

“It’s a successful military campaign in which there was no firing or bloodshed. We communicators and security units had devised our plans thoroughly meant to overpower them regarding firepower,” he further recounted.

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A refugee camp was attacked and burned down. Photo: Mac Duc Trong

Rescuing 3,000 people

In mid-January 2015, opposing forces attacked the government troops in Jamam in Upper Nile State, nearly 100 kilometers from the UN base.

An influx of people in one race was reported to attack a village of another lineage in Jamam, and annihilated houses on their way.

After a few days of fire exchange, the UN office got a tip-off that a large number of people had fled to the forests to avoid getting killed.

However, the organization had no information on their number and actual situation due to disrupted phone signals.

This was of paramount importance as villagers in war zones stand good chances of getting slain in revenge.

As directed by the command center and the UN organs over refugees, the local force comprising two communications officers, and a Rwanda infantry company took on a march in search of fleeing refugees without any delay, before working in coordination with international agencies in handing out emergency food.

At 7:00 am, the convoy departed.

Trong’s companion, a Sri Lankan major, and he himself tried hard to locate fleeing residents, build camps and supply food.

The sides were about to exchange fire while Sr. Lt. Col. Trong and his troops were carrying out their search.

The UN force then encountered threats and a lack of cooperation from the government troops on doubts that the organization had dispatched soldiers in support of the opposing faction.

They demanded a security permit issued by the government, which meant they defied laws and were set on keeping the UN men from advancing.

Sr. Lt. Col. Trong reported the incident to the Malakal Command Center, who would reach the military zone leaders for solutions to the situation.

“As tension during a three-hour negotiation mounted, the opposing troops launched their attack right at the government force’s command center, where the Sri Lankan major and I were sitting for negotiations,” he further recalled.

Only then did the government troops let Sr. Lt. Col. Trong and his comrades go.

The group then waded along the street for signs of life, which were nowhere to be found.

At an agonizingly slow speed of only 20 kilometers per hour, the group patiently covered another 100 kilometers before bumping into three or four residents, led by the village head, around 4:00 pm.

There were nearly 3,000 villagers in total, made up of kids, women and elderly people, as young men had all been compulsorily enlisted.

“They claimed they had wandered on an empty stomach in the forest for four days. The spectacle was pathetic, with old people, children and patients wailing noisily,” Trong recalled.

Necessities, including food and water, were handed out immediately to the people.

International organizations soon launched a refugee camp right at the location for more aid.

The following day Sr. Lt. Col. Trong and his comrades began escorting relief buses crossing war zones to the refugee camp.

Residents from two or three other villages also rushed to the UN group for aid.

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