Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Saturday, 20 November 2010

UN troops bring a taste of India to a lawless DR Congo

By Paul Moss
BBC News, Congo

United Nations peacekeepers from India wait to board an helicopter in Muhanga
The UN has its work cut out in this conflict-ridden country

In Africa's most lawless country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN troops face both appalling violence and also intense criticism for their failures, but for the Indian peacekeepers there is still time to enjoy a few of life's simple pleasures.

The officer was genuinely upset.

It was the senseless waste that seemed to distress him.

He was Punjabi, a military man from a military family, and he had served in conflicts from Kashmir to the Chinese border.

Now he was a UN peacekeeper in Congo.

But even with this extensive experience of human behaviour, he had seen something here that defied all understanding.

You cannot count the number of war casualties - you cannot even count the number of wars

"It's the mangoes," he said. "They grow everywhere. They are good ones too. And you know what?"

He sighed deeply, almost unable to articulate this outrage against all reason.

"The local Congolese people here - they do not even know how to make mango chutney."

A map of DR Congo showing the location of North Kivu province

I could have laughed. Or I could, perhaps, have been annoyed at his odd sense of priority.

Here in North Kivu Province, you cannot count the number of war casualties - you cannot even count the number of wars.

They range from a major confrontation with international dimensions, right down to little micro-battles, and with all sizes and shapes of conflict on the spectrum in between.

As one Congolese journalist said to me - almost proudly - here, every hillside has its army.

Culinary delights

It is into this maelstrom that the troops from India have been sent, as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission.

But their mandate here is not just about preventing war.

A group of women shelter from the rain outside a church in Kiwanja
The peacekeepers are involved in numerous projects to help local people

"We want to set up social projects to develop the area," another Indian officer told me. "If people have jobs, they are less likely to fight."

He showed me the village hall they are helping to build near the town of Kiwanja. And there are plans also for a school to teach car maintenance.

But then, yes, he was an Indian, and his thoughts had turned to culinary possibilities. And that meant showing the villagers how to make mango chutney - they could sell the chutney or at least learn how preserving fruit makes it keep, a useful skill where refrigeration is scarce.

But in the temporary absence of this crucial condiment, the troops were not going short of decent food.

Much to my amazement, at their base they had built an impressive officers' mess and rustled up a dazzling selection of curries, side-dishes and fried rotis.

Once upon a time, British officers serving in the Raj would go to great lengths to recreate familiar home comforts.

Now these soldiers were echoing their former colonial masters - making sure there was a corner of an African field that was forever India.

They had even had India's Kingfisher beer flown in and served it up in rather elegant pint glasses with spicy snacks on the side.

I soon saw why they needed these comforts.

Danger zone

One morning we set off on foot patrol - about a dozen of us, all wearing bullet-proof jackets that weighed heavily in the damp equatorial heat.

UN troops marching
The Indian troops are expected to resolve intensely dangerous situations

We were trekking into a remote area of farmland where the owners are often too scared to tend their fields.

Every time one of the myriad armed factions here decides to take on another or to pillage a local community, the Indian troops are expected to throw themselves in the middle.

As we tramped through the wet, knee-high vegetation, I asked one soldier where he came from. It turned out he came from a small town in the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Another grew up in Kerala.

None had been abroad before - and some would not even have left their home state until army life required it.

Now here they were, on patrol in a distant country that I would guess some could not have found on a map.

But the UN mission in Congo is not going according to plan.

Only last July, one rebel group raped more than 200 women in a single attack.

It turned out there was a UN peacekeeping base just 20 miles (30km) away, yet no troops showed up until several days after.

It was, the UN admitted, a terrible failure.

'No target'

I raised this subject with the soldiers on my patrol. It seemed they had been handed a mission in which failures were clear but success was harder to define.

There was no target destination to conquer nor invaders to expel.

So what, I asked them, would count as victory?

As if on cue, a group of children from a nearby village came past all laughing and giving the Indians a thumbs-up sign.

"A little happiness on the face of a single villager," the platoon commander said, "that's a kind of victory."

And he did not offer anything more substantial than that.

It was odd to find this attitude, almost like Gandhi in its simplicity, from a man carrying an automatic weapon.

But, the children were laughing. And in the midst of this war zone, I, too, felt a little safer to have the blue-helmeted soldiers alongside me.

I thought of the Kingfisher beer waiting back at base and we carried on walking.

Paul Moss has filed a series of reports from DR Congo for Radio 4's The World Tonight which can be heard on weekdays at 2200 or listen online afterwards via iplayer at the above link.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
17 May 11 |  Country profiles

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