STUTTGART, Germany — When the first Darfur-bound C-17 hit the ground at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda early Wednesday morning, the U.S. Air Force’s ground crew had some extra lifting to do as they loaded equipment to support an international peacekeeping force.
The original plan was for the two U.S. Air Force C-17s to haul some 75 tons of oversized trucks and heavy equipment in support of the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in western Sudan, where years of ethnic strife has displaced millions of people from their homes.
"Since they’re flying the missions anyway, they loaded the aircraft with anything else that they (the peacekeepers) needed," said Eric Elliott, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman on the ground in Rwanda.
In all, some 150 tons of equipment will be delivered to Al Fashir, the main logistics hub for peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan. Extra supplies added to the cargo included water purification systems and several thousand pounds of spare parts for vehicles.
The mission, coordinated by AFRICOM’s air component — the 17th Air Force out of Ramstein, Germany — started early Wednesday with the first C-17 landing in Sudan by late morning. By early afternoon, the aircraft was back in the air and bound for Djibouti to refuel.
The mission went off without a hitch, according to officials with Stuttgart-based AFRICOM.
The second C-17 was to follow into Darfur a few hours later with another load.
Maj. Sean Pierce, the aircraft commander of the second C-17 out of Travis Air Force Base, Calif., said the operation was off to a good start moments after touching down in Kigali.
"It’s been very well-planned and the execution has been seamless," Pierce said. "We’re anticipating a fairly remote, somewhat uncontrolled environment [in Darfur]."
Regarding security conditions, "There’s no specific concern, but we’re prepared to react to anything that comes our way," Pierce said.
Several hours later, the second crew was back in the air and also Djibouti-bound.
The AFRICOM mission will consist of five delivery flights into Darfur and should conclude by Friday. Each trip starts in Djibouti, where the U.S. military maintains a presence at Camp Lemonier. After landing in Rwanda to load the cargo, the C-17s fly into Darfur to unload, then set off again for Djibouti. The time on the ground is limited to the time it takes to unload the cargo.
By the time Pierce and his 13-member crew from the 301st Airlift Squadron return to Travis, they’ll have logged about 50 hours of time in the air to complete the mission.
Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced from their homes as a result of the conflict in Darfur. All the while, peacekeepers have struggled to bring an end to the violence.
For the Rwandan military, the mission in Darfur has come with a cost. Back in July, five Rwandan soldiers were killed in Sudan.
Maj. Jill Rutaremara, a spokesman for the Rwandan Defense Force, said his country’s peacekeepers have many needs out in the field as they attempt to stem the violence.
The primary need, he said, is vehicles to transport troops, but ambulances, better communication systems, maintenance supplies and water tanks also are in short supply.
"The demands are many," Rutaremara said. "We hope that this cooperation with Africa Command is going to continue."