Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Work

Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Work

Article excerpt

Democratic Republic of Congo This week I joined United Nations forces in the Congo for an offensive against rebel militias. 'We're the only ones who want to fight, ' said the South African colonel, cussing the other blue helmet contingents. 'They're too scared to go forwards and I'm tired of it.' Pakistanis bombarding the opposite hillside with mortars wanted to leave the dirty work to the Congolese government forces. 'Good shot!' exclaimed the Pakistani major each time a mud hut got blown to bits a mile off. An Indian helicopter gunship circled at altitude, too high to fire its rockets. 'Nobody wants to die for the Congolese, ' an Indian told me later.

Congolese troops, stoned on huge quantities of dope and maize beer, set off from our position. Within an hour, small arms fire was crackling across the ridge. We were able to determine the government army's advance by fires billowing up from the militia-occupied villages. The soldiers were burning every house -- and I had to remind myself that this is an operation the United Nations says is intended to bring security to civilians so that they can vote in democratic elections.

I was boiling hot in my helmet and flak jacket as we set off with the South Africans on foot. An Afrikaner officer said, 'We're supposed to be here to protect civilians.

We can't do that by sitting here.' He predicted that we'd be ambushed among the banana groves, huts and wooded valleys. I was scared, thrilled and horrified all at the same time. When we made it to the opposite hillside, huge orange flames were leaping skywards into a spectacular tropical sunset. As we toiled up the slope and emerged from a thicket of trees full of brightly coloured birds, we came under a hail of AK-47 fire.

I was breathing so hard with sweat streaming into my eyes that it took a few seconds for me to realise we were in an ambush. I looked up on to the ridge above us and saw several figures in the long grass firing at us. Few of the South Africans bothered to take cover, but responded with bursts from a belt-fed machine gun, their rifles and a grenade launcher. The battalion's chaplain, who had spurned helmet and flak, strode among his soldiers quietly chatting to them in Afrikaans. James trotted about happily filming the action, disregarding the officers' pleas for him to lie flat. Bullets whizzed through the grass between us. …

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