Indian peacekeepers help civilians evacuate after volcano erupts in Congo
The Indian Army played a crucial role in the evacuation of civilians and United Nations personnel from North Kivu’s capital Goma after a volcano erupted in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, officials familiar with the development said on Sunday.
The Indian Army’s brigade involved in peacekeeping operations in the African country is headquartered in Goma, and it accounts for the largest deployment of Indian forces on foreign soil alongside South Sudan.
“The Indian brigade HQs held its ground and in a calculated and calm manner, thinned out 70% of the strength of the camp and sent them to the Himbi company operating base (COB) for safety. A minimum strength continued to hold onto the camp ensuring no threat to UN and national assets as also providing security to empty aviation base and aviation fuel stored there,” said one of the officials cited above.
Chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat commanded the Indian brigade in 2008-09 when he was a brigadier.
There are more than 2,300 Indian troops with the UN’s costliest peacekeeping mission in the Congo, a sprawling (the size of western Europe), dangerous and notoriously unstable country formerly known as Zaire. It was here that heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali knocked out George Foreman 46 years ago in a world-famous bout called “Rumble in the Jungle”.
Sandwiched between Nyiragongo volcano and the exploding Lake Kivu, Indian soldiers are operating in the Congo under a 15-minute evacuation plan.
The Indian brigade is located next to the Goma airfield, which plays an important role in providing logistics support to UN peacekeepers deployed in eastern Congo. Mount Nyiragongo, located near Goma, erupted on Saturday night causing panic among the local communities.
“Most of the lava, however, has flowed towards Rwanda and only a small stream is trickling towards Goma. As a precautionary measure, various country contingents were told to be on alert by the UN’s internal security system that calculated that evacuation will not be required. However, a majority of the country contingents including aviation contingents evacuated immediately,” the official said.
The army also established an observation point that gave real-time updates of the lava flow to the brigade HQs, enabling it to relay correct information to the UN and creating a semblance of orderliness in the civilian evacuation, he added.
Lava flow has slowed down considerably. “Lava flow at this stage is unlikely to reach Goma town unless there is fresh eruption through fissures. Intermittent earthquakes of very low intensity are being currently experienced.”
India has a long history of deploying troops in the Congo: the first Indian blue berets (the colour used on UN duty) served from 1960 to 1965. It is the only UN mission where an Indian soldier — Captain G.S. Salaria — was awarded the Param Vir Chakra. He died in 1961, trying to save the Katanga province from falling to rebels.