From the archives, 1997: US training peacekeepers
Stars and Stripes November 30, 2023
This article first appeared in the Stars and Stripes Europe edition, Aug. 26, 1997. It is republished unedited in its original form.
KABAMBA, Uganda — As rain swept across the equatorial African highlands Sunday night, it drummed on the canvas of Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Gordon’s Army tent as he sat on a cot beneath a curtain of mosquito nets and looked at his watch.
“Man, tomorrow’s Monday,” Gordon said, remembering that his two children were about to start school back in Mannheim, Germany. “Every day’s the same day here … another day on the hill.”
The rainy season has begun in this part of the world, meaning that sweltering days arc interrupted by brief, violent downpours A few nights earlier, the winds and hail-sized raindrops ripped up tents and tore down trees.
Gordon, 32, from Petersburg, Va., is head cook tor 60 American soldiers training Ugandan combat veterans how to be peacekeepers. The soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C. — some from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, others from the 18th Airborne Corps – arrived July 21 at this hilltop overlooking the Kabamba military training school, 150 miles west of Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
For their eight-week stay in the African bush, they came armed with portable latrines, televisions, VCRs, desktop computers and a wide variety of field rations.
Fresh from fighting rebels in the restive northwest, the 770 Ugandan soldiers of the 3rd Battalion; 307th Infantry Brigade, camp in more modest conditions and live off cornmeal porridge and chapatis.
The two-month program is part of the U.S.-led African Crisis Response Initiative to coordinate training of local armies so that African troops can play a larger peacekeeping role on the troubled continent.
The first two countries to take part are Senegal — in French-speaking West Africa — and Uganda, in the English-speaking eastern part of the continent.
With a $15 million budget put up by the United States, the training program now has camps at Kalama Hill and at Thies, Senegal, and is to be expanded by year’s end with camps in Mali, Ethiopia and Malawi. Three other locations are still to be named.
The idea of an all-African peacekeeping force first was floated by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher during an African tour in late 1996. Response was less than enthusiastic. South Africa was downright hostile fearing Washington wanted it to shoulder the responsibility.
But after Western-led peacekeeping debacles in Somalia and Rwanda — where U.N. mandated forces either failed to resolve a conflict or failed to intervene to stop a genocide — and the rebellion in the former Zaire with its thousands of refugees, the big seven industrial nations and Russia threw their support behind the idea in June.
While the Green Berets are doing the training in Uganda, support troops from Mannheim, Germany, were called in to help build and run the hilltop training camp.
That’s how Gordon found himself in this remote part of Africa.
Originally 20 soldiers from Mannheim’s 51st Maintenance Battalion were targeted to go, but funding fell short and the Germany-based force was cut to 10. Another 10 places were taken by logistics troops from the 1st Corps Support Command at Fort Bragg, most given less than a week’s notice.
This is Gordon’s second trip to Africa, having spent three months in Somalia in early 1993. In July, he had just returned from a military school in the U.S. to find he was going to Uganda on short notice.
Other than slow mail, most of the Germany-based soldiers said Uganda isn’t as bad as they thought it would be, except for the ants.
“You haven’t seen ants till you’ve seen ants here,” said Sgt. Wilfredo Figueroa, 31, from Naranjito, Puerto Rico.
Millions of the insects had taken over the showers Sunday night before being driven away to another part of the compound. In nearby fields, ant hills are the size of small homes.
Nights are cold up on the hill, and the water is unheated, so even when they aren’t being overrun by insects, the showers can be unpleasant. As a morale boost, troops take turns making the three-hour drive into Kampala running errands for the unit and spending a night at the Hotel Equatoria, where they can call their families for about $9 a minute.
Figueroa, who won an on-the-spot Army Commendation Medal for his work setting up the unruly power generators at the camp, said he took four hot showers in a row the night he spent at the hotel.
All the soldiers from Mannheim share a tent up on the hill, and Pfc. Maressa Carter, 25, from Detroit, sat on her cot across from Gordon, reading a novel.
Carter, also a cook, started her Army career with a deployment to Bosnia and is planning to end her tour in Germany with this stint in Uganda.
“It’s not as bad as we thought it was, and now that we’re here, I’m glad that we came to help the Ugandans,” Carter said.
Earlier Sunday, the Ugandan infantry troops marched up the hill to an American cookout and sang African tribal chants and exotic military songs about having the courage of a lion and about soldiers missing their families back home.
“They serenade us like that quite often,” Carter said. “It’s inspiring. ... They seem real appreciative of what we’re doing. They’ve been like that the whole time.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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