Normality and Post-Traumatic Stress – Part 1

I was deployed in 2004 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a South African peacekeeper. Several weeks before our deployment, we were “mobilised” at a military site somewhere in South Africa. During this “mobilising” period, we received several briefings by intelligence officers about the situation in Congo. We were taught about the different rebel groups, the conflict hotspots and where we would be deployed.

Intelligence briefings indicated that the fighting was along the eastern corridor, which included South Kivu, North Kivu and Beni. Some were deployed to Kindu, and I was part of a group that was deployed to Goma in North Kivu. But we were constantly reminded that we were a peacekeeping force. We could not interfere. If we saw rebels shooting or killing civilians, we could not engage. We could only engage when defending ourselves. Even then, we had to wait on a command from our section leader.

Based on our briefings, I expected scenes from Black Hawk Down and Tears of the Sun. But that is not what we got when we landed. The soldiers looked like regular soldiers, and the city of Goma seemed peaceful. But I soon realised that this apparent peaceful environment was a front. Something felt off. People were going about the everyday business in a “normal” way despite so many soldiers present in Goma, Lubero, Beni and Bunia. There were weddings, children were going to school, and people were doing their laundry. This normality felt forced. However, there was a moment I realised that people were aware that what they were experiencing was not “normal”.

I was deployed as part of the corps, and part of our tasks was to build new bases and purify water. The South African Army did not provide us with bottled water. It was our task to provide clean drinking water to every South African soldier. This meant that we had to go to the river twice a day to fill the water truck. Each trip took us approximately two hours.

One day I decided to take my camera with me. That day near the truck, a group of children were sitting, having a conversation among themselves. I estimate that it was about 50 metres from the truck. While I was sitting on top of the truck, waiting for the tank to fill up, I decided to take a photo. When I pointed the camera at them, they scattered in different directions. They thought I was pointing a gun at them. But when they realised that it was a camera, they came back and continued their conversation. That incident stayed with me.

In South Africa, we knew violence but not on the scale that people in Eastern experienced it. The photos my friends shared with me from the sites they were deployed to were horrific. The photos were of dead women and children killed by militia. Their heads cut open with machetes. Some photos show women who were raped, mutilated and killed. Some women’s breasts were cut off. There were also photos of men who were killed and had their genitals cut off. Photos of militia posing with severed heads and other limbs of their victims and photos of people’s homes burned down.

Also, in South Africa, we did not experience poverty on the scale as people who lived in the conflict zone. We had a government that alleviated some of the poverty. In the Congo, there was no functional government. No government that built houses or who was providing electricity, or who build public infrastructures like roads and dams. The poor were left to find ways for their survive and fend for themselves.

Before we left the DRC, there was an attempt by South African Military Health Services (SAMHS) to debrief us. But the 5 minutes with the councillor did not help at all. So when I returned to South Africa, I felt empty and drained. I had post-traumatic stress. Soon afterwards, I completed my contract with the South African Army, and I never spoke much about my experiences in the DRC. Many people over the years have asked me to tell them about my experiences, but I never truly opened up. I felt like I lost a part of myself in the Congo. There were many days the conflict lingered in my mind. But as the years went by, it slipped from my mind only to enter it again in 2014, when I started my PhD. By then, I think I was ready and mature enough to deal with the trauma.

To be continued

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