Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Gunships Painted White

Liberia remains heavily forested, and especially during the wet season, access to much of the country can become a problem. Access, even in the best of times, is tricky, with several MilOb team sites reachable only by helo or resupply ship twelve months of the year. The UN has a surprisingly strong air force in country, with a total of twenty helicopters and two fixed wing cargo aircraft. Half of the helicopters are contractor-run, and half are operated by the Ukrainian military.

This geography makes patrol of much of the jungle area, as well as the ill-defined borders a real problem. In an attempt to keep a show of force up in these remote areas, UNMIL conducts routine air patrols of the entire country, and our teamsite runs two each week.

So Tuesday, my second day in the team, I spend with my head hanging out of the window of a Ukrainian MilMi-24 helicopter gunship, as we cruise over eastern Liberia at low levels. When we hear the sound of the two Hind gunships overhead, I grab my bags and head out to the airfield. We conduct the patrol with a pair of helos, with a representative from the Bangladeshi peacekeeping battalion on one, and me on the other.

The Mi-24 ‘Hind D’ is a mid-70s vintage Soviet attack helicopter that was developed after watching the US’s creation of the aircraft’s role in Vietnam. The Hind can carry up to eight combat troops, as well as a full load of armaments on its stubby wings and in its nose. I’m not too sure how you could fit eight troops and an engineer in the tiny little cabin, but that’s the stats. It wound up being a little to heavy to be a fast, maneuverable gunship, and too loaded with ordinance to be a high capacity cargo ship.

After meeting the pilots and the interpreter, I loaded up onto the lead gunship and we spin up the engines. After asking, the interpreter dugs out a paper thin set of ear protection headsets, which I put on over my earplugs. Holding up the high safety standards that the Eastern block nations were known for, the interpreter’s safety briefing consisted of “don’t smoke, and put away your alcohol.” He looked at me funny when I motioned to ask if I should put on my safety belt, so I took the hint and promptly spread myself in a comfortable position on the floor and hung my head out the open side window.

We taxied to a takeoff and lifted into the air. Turning north, we climbed out to about two to three hundred meters. Small villages dotted the landscape as we cruised up twenty minutes to the Guinea border. The area around here, while not mountainous, is very hilly, and pulling north, the ruggedness of the hills slowly increased. The ground was intermittent spots of grassland and small bush marbleized with wide streaks of rubber and coconut trees.

With the bright tan of the foot paths clearly visible against the lush dark green of the vegetation; it was easy to see the occasional Liberian walking into his hut or along a path. We trek to the border and make the turn East. To this point, I almost never see a village of more than two huts, but instead see single homes scattered; each a couple hundreds meters to the next. The few people I saw were certainly discernable, but only occasionally were we low enough to be able to tell, for instance, if they were holding a gun or doing some other suspicious thing. There was very little visible farming, but the occasional small rubber plantation was apparent by the patches of trees planted in perfectly straight rows. The four or five roads we covered stuck out with the set of two parallel footpaths. Other than their occasional reminder, the look of the countryside has probably changed little in the past thousand years. Occasionally, the number of homes would get sparser and the steady flow of trees would reach up into the air to grab us.

The jungle rolled on peaceably underneath us, with the home to the monstrous, incessant thumping barely five feet over my head. We turned north and passed Ganta, a huge metropolis of a couple hundred widely spaced homes, their relative wealth (sic) proclaimed by the number of gleaming metal roofs covering the humble mud abodes. I start to notice some scattered plots of farmland, none more than half an acre. Several are identifiable as rice paddies, most of the others likely cassava root. We continued to along the border, eventually turning southeast and soon looking out over Côte d'Ivoire. The landscape became rougher here, with one or two hills that had tentative claims of being titled a mountain. Here were more hardwood trees, fewer rubber, fewer huts and villages and paths cutting through the forest. Continuing to follow the border for another hour, it is easy to see how little control any government has on the area, not even people control this area. The open, easily penetrable borders and tenuous lines of demarcation are havens of smuggling and control by various rebel factions of all nationalities.

The hills settle down somewhat, and the hardwood trees give a nice relief to the eye as their occasional yellow and brown hues that remind you of an early fall evening. The trees recede a bit, opening up more and more to grasslands. Homes reappear, separated by at times nearly a kilometer, sometimes more, and consolidating into a village of a dozen huts once or twice.

Having traveled south a ways, until we were abreast Tapeta, we make an westward turn, for home. The trees return. The small clearings of grasslands disappear completely. And with them goes any sign of civilization, or people of any type. As recently as six months ago, there were reports of small groups of bandits, training in the remote area several kilometers south of here. UNMIL mounted some operations and dispersed what they could. But up here, at nearly a thousand feet, the tree cover was thick, and signs of people nonexistent. A solid and steady sea of green, combinded with the steady and visceral thumping of the main rotors overhead. Trees continue to wash by. Your interest returns when you see the first village in 20 minutes; in an endless train of green. Occasionally, a thin stream of palm trees flow through the monotony, giving you some texture at least, even if it didn’t accord any chromatic relief. No roads and very few footpaths.

The water throughout the country, though plentiful, tends to flow almost exclusively in small streams, if they even deserve that name. Along one road in our AOR, a fifteen kilometer stretch of road yields fourty-seven bridges. So, from the air, few are visible, just two rivers—one of which I get to see twice. It was a nearly hour long leg over this vast emptiness, and the helo returns to base and touches down gently more than two and a half hours after departing. Slaughtered, I stagger off to the chow hall.

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