Inside a MINUSMA convoy for 24 hours
This is the story of 24 hours in the life of peacekeepers, man and women, facing threats and bad weather, to reach the temporary base, to replace colleagues and ensure the communities in Ogossagou can live in peace.
A temporary operating base of the MINUSMA Force has been nestled for more than two years between the Peuhl and Dogon villages of Ogossagou in the Mopti region. Occupied by a company of Senegalese peacekeepers, their mission was to maintain peace between the communities that violently clashed in February 2020, killing several hundred people, the majority of whom were women and children.
Since the signing of local agreements between the two communities in October 2021, calm has returned to Ogossagou. The peace and understanding of the past are resurfacing. Time has come for this company to be replaced by a new one. In August the Senegalese troops in Sévaré were sent to Ogossagou.
The movement of troops - a spectacular sight and demanding logistic operation - was followed by a team of MINUSMA’s Strategic Communications and Public Information Office that recorded every step and effort along the way.
From Sévaré to Ogossagou by land in almost "slow motion"
It is 10:30 am. on Tuesday 30th August, at the MINUSMA camp in Sévaré. An entire company is gathered around the Commander of the11th Senegalese Battalion within MINUSMA. Colonel Mathieu Diogoye Séne is leading the final briefing before departure.
He leaves nothing to chance: what is the itinerary, the safety instructions, the role of each member of the team as well as the purpose and stakes of the mission. The convoy is about to link-up and go take over the responsibilities of the outgoing company based in Ogossagou for several weeks by now.
"Everyone knows what they have to do, so I'm counting on you to make it go as planned. Come on, let's go! ", says the Colonel Sene. Already in line, we can hear the engines running loudly – imagine a dozen armored vehicles, heavy and light, and several supply trucks – everyone ready to tackle the almost 200 kilometers that separate them from Ogossagou.
On the muddy RN 15 with terrorists and bandits
Half-an-hour later the long column of white vehicles bearing the "UN" black logo launches on the national road 15 (RN 15). Among the vehicles are that of Colonel Tamibe, of the Chadian Armed Forces, Chief of Staff of the MINUSMA Force in the region. His deputy follows him closely. He is Commander Douka of Niger. Their mission is to accompany their brothers in arms to the new place of deployment.
Sévaré (MINUSMA headquarters in Mopti region) is only 174 km away from the remote villages of Ogossagou. Access by land is very difficult. Along the way the convoy has to leave the asphalt and take the dirt road that is muddy due to the heavy rains.
RN 15 is the main axis that serves the major cities of Bandiagara, Bankass and Koro. It is also the link allowing for trade between Mali and its neighbor Burkina Faso. It is the preferred target of armed bandits and terrorist groups. They steal, attack and, above all, place improvised explosive devices that can de remotely detonated as convoys of the Malian Defence and Security Forces and UN peacekeepers pass. Several dozen peacekeepers have already lost their lives due to what is called IEDs. This threat forces the convoy of MINUSMA to inspect every meter of the path with diligence.
Detect the explosive threat
Manned with a demining unit, equipped with explosive detectors and drones, the company makes frequent stops. It is already 5:30 p.m. During the day it is very hot. A scout unit leads the way as it checks segments of the road. Is a slow work.
Connected by radio, rolling at pace, the peacekeepers inform each other constantly. The threat is palpable and every car, bus, motorcycle that passes potentially carries an informant of a hostile force, able to indicate the position of the convoy. Ambushes are expected all the time. Extreme vigilance is vital.
With helmets screwed on the head, bulletproof vest around the torso, weapon in hand, the peacekeepers scrutinize the edges of the road through the loopholes of their armored vehicles. The road is littered with charred wrecks, due to attacks and accidents. The afternoon advances as the sun sets.
Once past the city of Bandiagara another stop is required, near a crater on the paved road. The soldiers get off their armored vehicles. They deploy at regular intervals to form a perimeter to secure the immobilized convoy. Only those perched on the vehicles, hands on their machine guns, remain on board.
Some of the members of the demining unit take off with a reconnaissance drone for miles to come, while others comb through the crater and its surroundings. As we see the ground littered with sockets of small and large calibers, we are sure a shooting took place where we stand.
Between the traces of recent fighting and the beauty of the scenery made of tall grass and green hills in the distance, the contrast is striking. Further away from us, public transport vehicles and individuals slow down as they come near us, and once passing by our convoy they warmly greet the soldiers.
With the sun setting, the atmosphere cools down. It is important to note that the night is coming. The last kilometers of paved road are behind us. The reddish dust on the surface of the pavement tells us that the laterite soil portion of the road is not very far away.
With the strength of the wrist, shovel and... winch
It is now 7:30 p.m. The night has asserted its rights in the vicinity of Bankass, illuminated just by the crescent moon. The stars gradually disappear to make way for clouds. Distant and beautiful lightning strikes. We know what this means.
The long column of white vehicles will now have to overcome a soaked ground. Seasoned mechanics and drivers - real pilots – are among the soldiers. These are crucial skills over the long hours ahead.
The armored vehicles are bulletproof, both large and small, weighing between five and 14 tons. It is clear its weight will handicap them in the mud. We expect a lot of mud. The sky, which was heavy a few minutes ago, is now holding its promises. A torrential downpour hit, and the first heavy armored vehicle gets stuck.
Warned by radio, the lead vehicles stop. The maneuver that was used to detect hidden explosives is set in motion again. Slow and confident. Equipped with shovels and pickaxes, peacekeepers scrape mud and water under the wheels of the stuck tank. It is past 8 p.m. Nine kilometers separate the peacekeepers from the Ogossagou. The night promises to be painfully long.
Nearly twenty soldiers jump into the mud, put their hands on the back end of the heavy armored vehicle and try, for long minutes, to replicate a pendulum movement to help the pilot get the vehicle out of the quagmire in which it is located. To the rain we now add the wind, whose gusts disturb the shouts and instructions: “Push!!! One, two, three: push!!!”
A real struggle is taking place, putting man against nature. As the rain intensifies, the first stuck armored truck is finally free after two hours of struggle.
Bad news - a hundred meters further the same vehicle falls again into the claws of clay. Stuck again!
Discouragement is barred. The same fight unfolds again. After all they are almost there!
The vehicles behind manage to avoid getting bogged down, except for the supply truck. The convoy is then stopped again. The same men come down and restart with the same determination - the pendulum movement, the shouts and with the shovels.
This ‘almost’ dance will continue until the morning. A truck will come tow the vehicles at each bogged down site, of which there are plenty now. "Between yesterday and today I repaired and recovered between 31 and 32 times the vehicles," says Master Sergeant Adama Ndiaye, the company's mechanic.
Meanwhile, Adama positions his truck in the axis of the blocked vehicle, activates and unrolls his winch. His colleagues take hold of the cable. With water up to their knees, they go to hook it to the armored vehicle. After having checked the solidity of the stowage, Adama goes up in his cabin and pulls it in a deafening noise.
It was not until 11:30 a.m. on August 31, 24 hours and 30 minutes after leaving Sévaré, that the company entered the Ogossagou. They are exhausted but incredibly happy. Wonder why....