Blue Beret Kanhaiyas

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Blogged by: Amol Singh

Virunga National Park lies in Eastern Congo adjacent to Rwanda. Throughout the past fifteen years, the region has been embroiled in communal strife and has become the backdrop for some of the most wanton killings of peoples in recent history. In the battle over the areas vast natural resources, militias, poachers, and park rangers are in a constant struggle to establish domain over the park and its enormous natural resources. The park initially became famous for its population of increasingly rare Silverback Mountain Gorillas. Although protected internationally, the gorillas (and the rangers sworn to protect them) are powerless against an illicit $30 million natural resources trade involving the pilfering of local charcoal deposits.

In a National Geographic article published last year, journalist Mark Jenkins recounts his trip inside the National Park in search of the Silverbacks. Jenkins and a team of Park Rangers were escorted by a party of Sikh UN Peacekeepers.

We hike in the next morning. Our force numbers almost 50, including 12 rangers and Muir. At its core are 18 Sikhs, all veteran fighters, commanded by Maj. Shalendra Puri. UN soldiers are typically called “blue helmets,” but in this case they are the blue turbans.

The troops must navigate between pockets of the forest controlled by rebel militias of Hutus and Tutsis, and the Congolese Army. Many of the rangers mandated to protect the park have been immobilized due to rampant corruption, a barebones salary, and poaching. Jenkins continues,

Our column snakes up through jungle interspersed with open slopes of ropy black lava that burned through the forest during the 2002 eruption. It is raining, but the presence of the disciplined Sikhs quickens the hearts of the rangers. This is an emancipatory patrol, and they are inspired for the first time in months.

At the point where the rangers were forced to retreat last time, we come upon a bamboo crossa warning. Major Puri is unimpressed. He instructs his Sikhs to fan out and move up the hill. They do so methodically, communicating via hand signals, fingers on their triggers. Major Puri has his sidearm drawn.

We can see blue smoke curling into the sky ahead. Major Puri directs five soldiers to investigate. Minutes later, some distance above us, we spot four armed Hutu rebels running across the talus. Another hundred yards uphill, and three more disappear into the jungle.

Not a shot is fired. After the Sikhs secure the area, Major Puri allows us to follow the footpath toward the smoke. We pass through a line of trees and enter a clear-cut several acres in size. In the middle is a smoldering dirt mound.

“My God, it’s enormous,” breathes Muir.

Perhaps 20 feet in diameter and 15 feet tall, packed with dirt on all sides, it looks like a smoking volcano itself.

“This is a charcoal kiln,” says Muir exuberantly, “and this is the first charcoal kiln bust for a long, long time.”

Muir explains that the oven is loaded with old-growth hardwood but fueled with soft woods. This kiln would have produced 50 to 100 sacks of charcoal. Muir calls in the rangers, who attack the kiln with years of pent-up frustration, tearing it apart with sticks and shovels.

The rest of the hike is a breeze. Everyone is in high spirits. The Sikhs have accomplished their mission, and the rangers have, at least for the moment, regained some measure of self-respect.

“We only get $30 a month,” Iyamorenye says, responding to my unspoken observations, “and this is paid by NGOs, not by the government. We don’t have radios, we don’t have support from the ICCN, we don’t have enough money to feed our families.”

Another truck is stopped. Congolese soldiers recline as languorously as cats on top of the load. They start shouting and leap to the ground, pointing their machine guns at the rangers. Undaunted, the rangers haul themselves up onto the truck and discover sacks of charcoal hidden beneath a layer of firewood. The soldiers wave their machine guns and scream at the rangers to get down.

Unbelievably, the rangers ignore the threats. They begin rolling the heavy sacks off the truck, the bags bursting open when they hit the ground. Nearby waits the serendipitous source of their courage: a UN vehicle with a dozen well-armed, flak-jacketed Sikh soldiers.

Sikh UN Peacekeepers also made the news a few years back as a part of the UNIFIL Peackeeping mission stationed in Southern Lebanon. 73 soldiers of the 4th battalion Sikh Regiment were commended for their incredible service throughout the Israeli-Lebanon-Hezbollah conflict in 2006.pic2.jpg

For a kid brought up on stories of Sikh warriors protecting the powerless, the story of Sikh peacekeepers in the middle of Africa protecting the habitat of Silverback Gorillas and providing agency to a dilapidated Rangers force (to wage their fight on their own terms) harkens back to my earliest memories where I would be told about the ways the great Sikh warriors marched fearlessly for the simple sake of doing what was right. Granted the said political climates that these Indian Sikh PKOs are engaged in are far from black and white and articulating the true voices of suffering in a theatre of war is immensely tough. Regardless, even as we are bombarded with a constant stream of news that leaves us troubled by the actions of our holiest institutions and most visible spokespersons, stories of soldiers in Sikh saroop, a world away from home and in the gravest of the worlds war zones acting as the living manifestations and active practitioners of the greatest teachings of the gurus makes one feel that, Nanak nam chardikala, tere bane sarbat da bhalla.


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5 Responses to “Blue Beret Kanhaiyas”

  1. harmeet singh says:

    a very informative and interesting blog. it makes me proud to be in a religion that is so fearless and benevolent. very well written article and keep up the leet work.

  2. harmeet singh says:

    a very informative and interesting blog. it makes me proud to be in a religion that is so fearless and benevolent. very well written article and keep up the leet work.

  3. Pally Singh says:

    well done all these brave singhs makes me feel proud to be a Sikh

    well done Amol Singh great writing

  4. Pally Singh says:

    well done all these brave singhs makes me feel proud to be a Sikh
    well done Amol Singh great writing

  5. […] (and cool pic!) in today’s Daily Mail. Along similar lines as last week’s post on the Blue Beret Kanhaiyas, it is wonderful to see Sikhs presented in this light…as confident and courageous soldiers in […]

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