Like many correspondents reporting from Africa, my home is full of souvenirs: a wedding mask from Cameroon, a stone sculpture from Zimbabwe, a plastic vuvuzela from South Africa. But sitting among them is something less predictable: a mug displaying the emblem of India’s Jammu & Kashmir Rifles.
This came from a visit last year to the Democratic Republic of Congo and a stay with the Indian army which, I discovered, has brought not only uniforms and rifles but some of the comforts of home. Congo is wracked by one of the most long-running, devastating and complicated of conflicts in the world. As Jason Stearns, author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, puts it: “How do you cover a war that involves at least 20 different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?”
How, also, do you keep the peace? This was the challenge facing some 4,000 Indian troops, making up the biggest contingent of the biggest UN peacekeeping operation on the planet. In common with journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq, I was ‘embedded’ with the Indian army in eastern Congo. As we rolled through the thickly forested hills, and villagers turned to look, Major Rohit Sharma, 35, from Delhi, said: “Every time a child waves to me, it gives me a lift.”
We travelled 150 km north of Goma and stopped at military bases that all had an Indian flavour. There were Indian curries and rotis, Indian flags and shrines and furniture, and a military etiquette that somehow evoked popular notions of the British Raj. At every opportunity I was offered a cup of tea, and we spoke a common language, English, in this otherwise officially francophone country.
One night in Kanyabayonga, a buffet was prepared in the mess tent. Someone put on a DVD of the film Memento, explaining they were curious because there is now a popular Bollywood remake. There was talk of home and cricket, of the bitterly cold winter in Delhi that year, of the excitement of economic miracles in a country that has more people than the whole of Africa.
I recalled my brief travels there: dawn light on the Ganges, the stupendous beauty of the Taj Mahal at Agra. I wondered if these sons of India ever imagined they’d end up in the jungles of eastern Congo. One said: “It’s not so different from where we usually operate. The hills look a bit like this. We’ve had a lot of experience with low-level insurgencies.”
At the base at Kiwanja, home to a unit called the Bodyguard, I found a mess tent elegantly decorated with Asian carpets, ornaments, an antique desk and black-and-white photographs of campaigns during World War-I and II. I was shown my home for the night, a hut with coffee-table books such as Portraits of Valour and Officers’ Mess: Life and Customs in the Regiments by Lt Col R.J. Dickinson.
That evening a white envelope was delivered to me. It contained a neatly embossed invitation that said: “Col Lakhbinder Singh Lidder requests the pleasure of the company of David Smith to dinner at Bodyguard House at 8.30 pm.” I joined guests on a clipped lawn under a tent where Lidder was holding court. Plates of Indian canapes were offered by waiters with courtly manners.
To my astonishment, Lidder gifted me with that commemorative mug bearing the emblems of the J&K Rifles and the UN peacekeeping mission. It said: “Reliving the history. ‘Bodyguard’ once again in the shadows of ‘Kilimanjaro’ in east Africa 1918 to 1919 & 2009 to 2010.” The presentation was captured for posterity by a military photographer.
The soldiers expressed tentative optimism that their mission was working and violence was slowly ebbing. They told me they were generally well received by the local population who were grateful for any protection. But the Congolese and Indian cultures did not always see eye to eye.
BBC correspondent Paul Moss, who also travelled with Indian peacekeepers in Congo, met one Punjabi officer who was quite bewildered. “It’s the mangoes,” he was quoted as saying. “They grow everywhere. They are good ones too. And you know what? The local Congolese people here—they do not even know how to make mango chutney.”
I went back to Goma and said my goodbyes to Sharma. The oasis of India I found in deepest Africa will never seize the international limelight like the Americans and British in Afghanistan. But perhaps a cup of tea should be raised in honour of these unsung tours of duty in the half-forgotten corners of the world.
(David Smith is Africa correspondent of The Guardian, based in Johannesburg.)