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Mission Congo: In the thick of brutal conflict

world Updated: Oct 15, 2008 01:11 IST
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Major Itika Suri is the only woman peacekeeper among the 4,554-strong Indian contingent in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But no one messes with her. She’s a sharpshooter, one of the army’s best.

At a shooting range, she would have been picking off targets and bettering her score. In Congo’s blood-spattered battlefields, her worry is to keep the Indian UN peacekeepers well supplied with weaponry and provisions, by no means an easy task.

Each time Indian Air Force’s gunships lift off to discipline rebel militias, the logistics officer at the North Kivu Indian brigade gets caught up in her own math to keep count of rockets fired. Replenishing ammunition is not simple.

Missiles, rockets and bullets for fighting dissident general Laurent Nkunda’s hit-and-run guerillas come all the way from India in sea containers, shipped only once in three months.

Wearing a neat set of camouflages and her blue beret at a rakish angle, Major Suri says, “The tyranny of terrain and torturous supply lines running to India make this war a major logistics nightmare. As the fighting turns more vicious, ammunition is being expended at a faster pace.”

It is vital to hold sufficient ammunition for the Indian peacekeepers to remain a potent force, able to support the war efforts of the ill-equipped Congolese army and protect defenceless civilians. Major Suri is not fighting this war from the trench, yet the challenges she confronts behind the scenes are in no way inferior. The strain of intense combat has not left her unscathed.

As Indian peacekeepers find themselves in the thick of brutal conflict, attack helicopters have fired more rockets over the past three weeks than they have in two years. Stocks have depleted and fresh deliveries are unlikely to be made before December even though a demand has been raised.

“Rockets provide deterrence against rebel militias. Our endeavour is to hold optimal stocks to do our task. We have taken lead time into account and should be comfortable,” points out Major Suri, a third generation army officer who has represented India at international shooting competitions. But this war has turned out to be a test of her troubleshooting skills.

Pushing logistics such as ammo, fuel, food and spares over the Indian brigade’s vast area of responsibility covering some 60,000 sq km of restrictive terrain can be quite nerve-jangling.