Author: Qi Zhongxi, Fan Xi, Liu Shiping, Su Xiaozhou, Chu Xiaoliang, Yang Jian, Wu Hao
Translator: Zander Rounds
Published on: 2/2/15
Original text (in Chinese): http://mil.huanqiu.com/china/2015-02/5569330.html
“It is our great honor to be able to receive your protection” – They bear the brunt as danger approaches
As far as guard unit soldier Wang Zhangjun can recall, “5/19” marks the single most thrilling day of the entire peacekeeping period.
The 170 soldiers that constitute the “guard” unit are the first security unit that China dispatched for the United Nations peacekeeping mission. Their primary responsibility was the defense of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)’s East Warzone Headquarters and peacekeeper barracks. When danger approached, they bore the brunt from the frontline.
It was noon local time on May 19 last year. As Mali’s internal political situation worsened, thousands of Gao’s populace got on motorbikes and pick-up trucks and suddenly gathered at the East Warzone HQ’s South Gate, raising flags in protest. Rocks of various sizes began to rain down from outside the enclosure, smashing with loud “cracks” against the temporary housing structures. Soon the structures were covered in dents. Tens of radicals wielding clubs and axes incessantly beat the gate, while some others grabbed torches and attempted to toss them over.
Wang Zhangjun and comrades were already well-practiced in the skill of shooting with great precision. However, here they faced a conflict: while they needed to confront the local demonstrating masses, they could not use direct military force. Otherwise, escalation would have been extremely likely.
Faced with this dilemma, Wang Zhangjun and comrades quickly lifted a circle of wood and used rigid bodies to brace the gate.
The eighteen-soldier commando unit formed a single-file line and used their bodies to strengthen the line of defense. In the chaos, rocks struck Wang Zhangjun and Wang Wen. Blood flowed.
“The battle position must be held; people simply must not be allowed to enter!” Wang Zhangjun reflected on the event.
At a critical moment, Captain Zhang Geqiang decisively gave orders: soldiers at the fortification’s front line brandish bayonets to intimidate; Second Level Rapid Response Infantry Vehicles start their engines to prepare for a response, officers collect on one side to call out positions and urgently call the East Warzone’s highest level security official to the spot, so as to engage in dialogue with the gathered masses. With a series of scientifically executed maneuvers, the issue was quickly settled.
After the event, the East Warzone’s commanding officer, General Ma Mashe, personally visited the camp and Wang Zhangjun’s two men who had been injured. He presented the guard unit with a statue of “the thinker” that he himself had collected.
However, the situation quickly developed beyond everyone’s expectations. A few days later, the armed Malian opposition advanced to a place twenty kilometers from Goa.
In order to ensure their own security, each country’s peacekeeper forces one-by-one were ordered to suspend their missions by the warzone’s HQ. The warzone’s Civil Affairs Bureau even made preparations to evacuate. Many locals took to the road to flee.
Defensive warzones are intended precisely to keep the peace. When a warzone is unstable it means that the peacekeeping activities have failed. Confronting this perilous situation, Zhang Geqiang resolutely made a decision: organize a one-time live ammunition maneuver, using the demonstration of military force to prevent fighting.
On the day of the maneuver, four infantry tanks were dispatched; five kinds of weapons spit out flames. The roar of eight types of shells sounded above the mission’s area. All of this was to announce to the outside world the staunch resolution of China’s peacekeepers to defend world peace. This maneuver effectively prevented the situation from worsening. MINUSMA’s commanding officer Kazura stated: “China’s guard unit’s actions galvanized the rest of the peacekeepers, using might to overcome the terrorists’ threatening manner.”
“First a covert, then three linked holes; then pass a gas station and a line of tires…”
Driver Chen Tianhong sums up the road conditions during his time abroad with a rhyme.After having been in Mali for not long, the guard unit received a notification: “Dutch combat engineers carrying out a construction mission in the interior desert have suffered repeated assault from terrorists. China’s guard unit is requested to provide security defense.”
The Dutch combat engineer squad’s construction site was adjacent to an airport surrounded on three sides by brush. It looked like a “living target”. At the time, 70% of the rocket attacks occurred near the airport. It was obvious how difficult defending this point would be.
Chen Tianhong and comrades familiarized themselves with the state of the roads and drew up contingency plans. The road had two rotaries, four turning points, eight culverts and countless potholes. As this road was, in his opinion, latent with danger, they came up a series of potential reactionary measures including prepared signals, electromagnetic interference, speed change areas, routes to delay or turn around, etc. At the construction location, Sergeant Zou Shouxiang also designed a booby trap to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the defensive area.
Despite all of this preparation, there are always all sorts of situations that simply cannot be prepared for.
Once, two rockets in quick succession struck the construction area raising dark mushroom clouds. They missed the soldiers by only a few hundred meters.
Another time, two masked people in a pick-up were spotted driving towards the defensive area, rapidly drawing close. Two groups of security guards covered the Dutch engineers as they scattered and hid. Two military vehicles provided support by charging to the front of the defensive area. When the pick-up was about 150 meters from the defensive spot, Zhang Yeqiang decisively ordered a warning. The two people turned the car around and hurriedly fled.
After the incident, one of the Dutch lieutenant commanders gave a tulip brought from home to express his gratitude: “It’s our great honor to be able to receive your protection.”
During the peacekeeping period, the squad succeeded to high standards in defending the warzone as well as providing the Dutch army with protection. Specifically, they provided 458 motorized patrols and 239 instances of rapid response aid, warnings, escorts and other missions. UN Assistant Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute praised the effort: “Chinese Soldiers established a safe-haven in the incessantly chaotic Sahara desert.”
“Unparalled engineering quality” – “The best engineers” are made in China
“No, it cannot be done that way; the pavement needs to be sprayed with water and hardened!”
Combat Engineer Squad Captain Li Kaihua stood in the planning office of the peacekeeping’s “safe-haven barracks” for four countries including Cambodia and Benin. Gazing at the even road in front of him, he wrinkled his brow.
“If we just use the local red earth, the UN officials will still be pleased. Its unnecessary.”
Captain Zhang Da, responsible for construction, did not quite understand.
Its no wonder Zhang Da did not understand. For this MINUSMA “high priority mission” the soldiers, wearing helmets and heavy bulletproof vests, raced against time under the blazing sun, flattening the ground and building temporary structures. When thirsty, they poured a few mouthfuls of cold water; when hungry, they chewed on a few chunks of hard steamed bread.
After a long time in the scorching sun, the temperature of steel parts of the frame of the house reaches as high as 70 or 80 degrees centigrade. The thick rubber gloves worn by the soldiers were frequently burned through causing fava bean-sized blisters on the soldiers’ hands.
Li Kaihua grabbed a handful of earth, twirling it in his hands: “This type of soil looks very hard, but local sandstorms are big; it wouldn’t take much—if not pressed well, a few blows of heavy wind and when the rainy season comes it will be unbearably muddy.”
On Li Kaihua’s insistence, soldiers got water from Niger River several kilometers away and began spreading it and pressing, even stopping to pick out a small stone the size of a little finger.
During an engineering check, the person in charge of MINUSMA’s engineering division offered the assessment: “unparalled engineering quality.”
Even though peacekeeping missions and real war are not entirely the same, in Mali, the “most dangerous” peacekeeping mission area, soldiers still constantly face life or death trials.
That was Deputy Captain Wang Shiwei’s most nerve-racking period of time.
Since the end of May last year, armed rebels had engaged in a large-scale counter-offensive.
Extreme elements carried out a new round of terrorist attacks directed at MINUSMA. As a result MINUSMA launched an emergency contingency plan, ordering the urgent dispatch of the Combat Engineer Squad 300 kilometers outside of the rebel controlled Menaka to construct a barracks defense facility for Niger’s Peacekeeping Force.
Having just successfully completed a mission only to once again have to be on guard for attacks was a huge weight on squad member Wang Shiwei.
The motorway to Nigeria was not tranquil. 300 kilometers in China would not be considered very far. However, on that sandstone road covered in potholes, it was exceptionally difficult for heavy vehicles to advance. In order to ensure the safety of the vehicles, at around 11 p.m. the soldiers set up camp. But they had only just laid down that when they heard in the distance the sound of concentrated gunfire. The contingent quickly received a report: not far along the highway an armed clash had broken out leading to three innocent civilian deaths.
The construction area was similarly surrounded by perils. During the twenty-six days of construction, the contingent experienced one instance of a terrorist attack directed at the camp, two instances of armed rebels demonstrating and three instances of an armed conflicted breaking out near the camp. In the face of danger, the soldiers and peacekeeping allies stuck together until the solid, indestructible fortification was constructed. In doing so, they were recognized as “the strongest combat engineers.”
In order to counter Mali’s economic development regression, during the critical post-war reconstruction mission, the squad devoted all of its energies to improving the situation, clearing ruins, providing recreational goods, donating food to orphanages—“If you are having difficulties, find the Chinese combat engineers”, gradually became a popular local saying.
If you sincerely invest, what you gain is friendships. In Gao, the civilians who endured the bitter chaos of war and confronted people wielding guns will subconsciously from now on be hiding.
Only upon seeing Chinese peacekeeping combat engineers did they get close to gaining agency.
Diallo, the mayor of Gao, praised China’s combat engineers calling them: “messengers of peace, an emissary of friendship.”
“You were the first passenger to be invited into the cockpit”
Since MINUSMA was formed, a number of emergencies occurred leading to massive personnel casualties—in fact, the most casualties and highest intensity in any UN peacekeeping area. Over the period of the mission, the medic squad’s soldiers succeeded in saving fifty-four foreign peacekeeping army soldiers harmed in eleven waves of attacks and incidents.
Last year on April 26, the medical area had been in operation for three days when it welcomed the first batch of wounded.
That day at around 2 p.m. a large number of Senegalese peacekeepers arrived in Mali. On their way from Gao to camp in Kidal they suffered a grave car crash, with one peacekeeper sacrificing himself on the spot and eight others receiving critical injuries. Upon receiving the MINUSMA’s East Warzone’s call for support, the squad immediately began emergency preparations.
At 2:50, three armored ambulances screamed into China Second Hospital. Zhu Siqiang, the deputy commander of the medic squad, responsible for organizing the wounded, carefully examined the condition of the patients. In succession, he issued the orders to divide the patients: group one, wounded to be sent to the ICU; group two, wounded to be sent to take X-rays; group three, wounded with head and limb trauma to immediately receive sutures… After nearly seven hours of intensive emergency management, all of the wounded had received timely treatment and care.
The hardships of war are incessant. Last year on the morning of June 4, a group of peacekeepers and soldiers on a mission suffered a roadside bomb attack, followed by an intense shootout with armed opposition. Five peacekeepers were wounded.
They underwent an emergency medical check: most of one person’s entire body was seriously injured, his left eye receiving the most serious of the injuries. He was at risk of going blind at any time. A bullet was shot through one person’s right leg, smashing through the tibia. One person dislocated joints. Two peoples’ eardrums were damaged and demonstrated signs of internal bleeding… The soldiers quickly threw themselves into the rescue effort.
As long as Wang Xu can remember, the thing he was most proud during his experience as a peacekeeper was without a doubt being invited into an airplane cockpit to witness the process of flying. The pilot told him: “You are the first passenger to be invited into the cockpit.”
Wang Xu was the group leader of the medical evacuation squad. That was the afternoon of July 23 after he received a mission to carry emergency medical aid equipment directly to the French Battlefield Hospital.
The wounded was a Cambodian soldier. A sandstorm had blown his tent and his body causing head bleeding which, if persisted, would cause him to lose consciousness and the ability to breath independently. MINUSMA had dispatched a plane to just take him to Senegal’s capital Dakar for treatment.
During the flight, as the wounded person lost the ability to breath independently, the evacuation team had no choice but to make use of the life-support equipment’s manual oxygen provider for more than two hours. In the meantime, blood at one point flowed from the wounded person’s forehead and his blood oxygen level steadily declined. Wang Xu firmly conducted the mannitol drip to keep the patient calm, ensuring that the patient stayed away from the mortal danger.
Witnessing the wonder of the excellent technology and care of Chinese medical personnel deeply moved the German pilot. So he made an exception and allowed Wang Xu in the cockpit.
Since the mission began, the evacuation and transport group successfully completed twenty-four evacuation missions for a total of 140 hours in the air, four international missions, a total distance of more that 65,000 missions, peacefully escorting sixty-nine wounded people. In the chaos of war in Mali, they frequently offered a “lifeline”.
The technical skill of Chinese medical personal speaks for itself. Last year on May 12, International Nurse Day, MINUSMA’s East Warzone held a battlefield nursing skills training. At the event, the squad’s nurses showed off glimmering puncture needles and heart and lung recitation operation, winning the enthusiastic applause of everyone there.
Even more than skills, what gained the hearts of people was Chinese nurses’ indiscriminate humanitarian spirit.
On more than one occasion squad member Wang Zhiqiang and his comrades, resisting their stomach’s overwhelming reaction, raised hands in salute and calmly closed the refrigeration door.
Inside lying still was one or sometime several peacekeepers’ corpses.
Because the local temperature are boiling many corpses cannot be preserved. When squad members are transporting corpses, they always lightly lift and put down those solders that sacrificed themselves, maintaining this final respect.
Africa is a disaster area where all types of infectious disease break out; so in order to take good care of themselves squad members vigorously offer meticulous medical treatment to patients. In doing so, they have touched emotionally previous patients that sought treatment. One wounded person with poor eyesight painstakingly drew a picture for the nurse who had cared for him to thank her for helping him get through his weakest days.
Captain of the medic squad Zhang Xiaogang was deeply touched, saying: “Many of the sick and wounded over the course of short several days of hospitalization have developed profound feelings towards China. By sowing the great love of medical benevolence and irrigating with drops of friendship, we demonstrate not only this group of nurses’ image but more importantly China’s image.”
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