The memorial wall at the entrance to Bhondsi village, Haryana, dedicated to local soldiers who laid down their lives serving in the defence forces since World War I, will soon have a new addition: the name of Subedar Kanwar Pal Singh (46) of the Army Medical Corps.
Singh, who had been serving with the UN-led peacekeeping mission in South Sudan for the past eight months, was one of the 43 Indian peacekeepers deployed in the remote town of Akobo to guard a UN refugee base camp.
South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is politically unstable and violence broke out after president Salva Kiir, a majority ethnic Dinka, accused his former vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of planning a coup against his government.
Members of the Dinka group sought refuge in the UN refugee camp following violence on December 15 in Juba, the capital. Four days later, a group of 2,000 Nuer rebels attacked the camp, leaving two Indian peacekeepers dead and one injured. Singh was one of those killed. Kanwar Pal Singh was to return from the mission on January 10 and expected to retire later this year.
Sadly, it was his body that was flown back to India where it was cremated with military and state honours at his ancestral home in Bhondsi.
There are over 7,848 Indian peacekeepers serving under the UN flag in missions across the world. Only Pakistan contributes more troops than India. Of the 16 current UN peacekeeping missions, India is actively involved in 10.
Subedar Dharmesh Sangwan (33) of 8 Raj Rifles was the other Indian peacekeeper who was shot by rebels on December 19.
A sportsman, he spent hours honing his kabaddi and wrestling skills and won four gold medals and two silver medals in various championships during his 12 years of service. An Asiad rowing champion, he was also the coach of the Delhi Rowing Association.
"The entire village was proud of him. His achievements brought honour," said Sandeep Sharma (26), a resident of Kheri Batter, Sangwan’s native village.
It had been only six months since Dharmesh Sangwan joined the peacekeeping mission as a junior commissioned officer, supervising a team of troops. This was his first mission abroad. While economic conditions had compelled Sangwan to join the army in 2001, villages like Bhondsi and Kheri Batter have traditionally produced many soldiers.
"People here are poor, which makes joining the defence forces at low ranks a bright career option. But more than that, it is in the blood of Haryanvis," said his uncle Sukhveer Singh (52), himself a retired serviceman. "We are well built and take pride in serving the country. This village has a history of sending its sons to the battlefield."
The story is identical in Bhondsi. 12 of the 16 men in Kanwar Pal Singh’s family alone have served in the forces. His younger brother Ajay (40), a Naik with the Army Medical Corps, had also served in the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo for eight months in 2012. Singh is the first person from the village to have lost his life on a peacekeeping mission.
An uncertain future Death has claimed the soldiers leaving behind families who are struggling to come to terms with their loss.
"I am unlettered and can do only household chores. Now I am a widow, and both my children are very young. I have no idea what the future holds for us," says Sangwan’s wife Bharti Devi (30) as she wipes her tears. Worried about how she will raise her children, she hopes the government will compensate the family with a gas agency or a petrol station.
Things look a bit brighter for Kanwar Pal Singh’s family. Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Haryana’s chief minister, has promised Singh’s daughter Anjali (19), a B.Sc final year student, a government job.
The village panchayat has also announced compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the family and has decided to name the village’s senior secondary school after Singh. Still, some losses are difficult to bear.
"My husband was in the medical corps and I had never imagined something like this would happen to him. I thought he had a safe job in the army," said his wife Asnee Lata.
"My father would help me with maths and science whenever he came home on leave," said Kunal, Kanwar Pal’s 13-year-old son, who is fond of collecting currency.
"He brought me the currencies of America, China and Bhutan, and had promised me the South Sudanese pound on his return," he said.
Though he is a hesitant talker, ask him what he wants to be when he grows up and pat comes the reply: "An army officer".
"Peacekeepers don’t rely on guns"
The violence unleashed after Croatia and Slovenia declared themselves independent from Yugoslavia led to the establishment of the United Nations Protection Force in 1992 in Sarajevo city.
Lt General Satish Nambiar was its first force commander and head of mission. Nambiar (78) describes his experience of commanding 14,000 to 28,000 troops of different nationalities as unique and enriching.
"It was a huge mission in a European country. From India, I and one staff officer were sent to serve," he said.
"Peacekeepers don’t rely on guns to resolve issues, they use weapons very rarely," he said narrating his experience of serving in a country wracked by ethnic strife.
"Cross-shelling by warring parties was a norm, but as peacekeepers we were there to keep them apart," he said.
After serving for a year, Nambiar refused to extend his term after interference in the functioning of the mission by some NATO countries. He returned to India in 1993 and a year later, retired as the Deputy Chief of Army Staff.
Since retiring, he has been actively engaged in the study and analyses of issues of national security and of the peacekeeping missions worldwide. He has also written a book entitled For the Honour of India: A History of Indian Peacekeeping (2009).
Throwing light on India’s commitment to peacekeeping missions, he said, "As a founder country, we have been fulfilling our duty towards the UN since its inception. It shows our standing in the world." So what motivates a soldier to fight for the integrity of another country, to serve in peacekeeping missions?
"Serving under the UN flag is like serving your own country, since India is very much part of the UN," he said.
"Everyone works for a common agenda"
Retired colonel Kaizad B Bhaya is an ex-UN peacekeeper who served under the United Nations-led peacekeeping mission to help restore order in civil war-ravaged Sierra Leone.
Ask him about his experience there, and he says, "It was long time ago, in 2000, and I do not have a sharp memory, but one thing I clearly remember is that ours was the best organised contingent."
Mention operation Khukri, and Bhaya, then acting as the company commander of the INDBATT-2, proudly narrates his unit’s experience.
"It was a rescue operation which ended a 75-day-long standoff between 200 soldiers of the 5/8th Gorkha Rifles and some other nationals at Kailahun by Revolutionary United Front rebels. Within 28 hours, we rescued and brought them all to the UN headquarters in Freetown".
During the ten-and-a-half months of deployment in the war-ravaged west African nation, the battalion also undertook the task of rehabilitating the local communities who were living hand-to-mouth by providing them seeds to start farming on a small scale. They also provided stationery to local primary schools.
A soldier of 18 Grenadiers, a decorated battalion of the Kargil war, Bhaya credits the war drill for helping the regiment achieve its targets. "My family was always petrified during the war but not when I was on the peacekeeping mission, sin they knew my unit’s potential."
Though Bhaya served with nationals from seven other countries under the aegis of the UN, he says he never let politics come in the way of his job. "Under the UN flag, you are serving as a peacekeeper and everyone is working for a common agenda and has to abide by the rules and regulations, irrespective of their nationality."
"A peacekeeper can be fired at"
Between 1995 and 1996, India sent a brigade of 1,000 men to keep the peace in Angola, a former Portuguese colony ravaged by civil war. Colonel Gopal Pandit (name changed) was handpicked to be part of the contingent that was to oversee the disarming of the UNITA rebels. When Pandit landed in Luanda, he saw that the place was falling apart.
"True, India suffered the Partition, but when the British left us, there were some systems in place. The Portuguese left them nothing," he said. There was also an ongoing fight over Angola’s rich resources – diamonds, coffee, minerals, oil – among the various factions.
The peacekeepers had to establish contacts among all groups, manage the conflict, create conditions for dialogue, ‘mainstream’ the rebels. And Colonel Pandit did that, for a year.
On the ground, the dangers were immense and they could come from anywhere. "A peacekeeper can be fired at. Rebel forces are forced to recruit children. A child has no gun control, if he panics, he fires," he said. A serving armyman, Pandit does not regret the mission. But the job he was sent to do, was it done?
"We finished part of the job. I was given a flag by one of Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA leader’s men… I had seen a slogan in one of the rebel areas ‘Savimbi is our new day.’" he said. "In two years, our mission was wound up. In 2002, Savimbi was assassinated."
-- Paramita Ghosh