Troubles and bad luck do not stop Dutch veterans from rebuilding bombed bridges in South-Sudan
‘Mission impossible’ for Dutch veterans
Extreme temperatures, heavy rains, pirates, ambushes and a car accident. The two veterans of a Dutch Engineering Compagny were facing severe problems while repairing bridges in the war-torn South Sudan. The last project, the construction of a 100 feet long bridge, was almost ‘a bridge too far’. Journalist Bart Coolen followed the ‘veterans with a mission’ for dutch newspapers during their work in Africa.
“Put your hands out of your pockets and help us!”, Harrie Brekelmans shouts in a mixture of English and Dutch to a few Sudanese boys. They stand with their hands in their pockets, watching how the veteran tries to fix the damaged bridge. Overloaded trucks created deep holes in the deck of the bridge and regularly trucks stick with their wheels through the road surface. The sun burns mercilessly above the African savannah. Although the afternoon is already coming to an end, it is still above fifty degrees (120F). “It is your bridge, not mine!”, the veteran yells angry. After that admonition, there will finally be movement in the Sudanese group. The broken-down deck girders are put back in place. Yet this is only a foretaste, because the real challenge lies with a settlement further on, about 30 miles north of the southern Sudanese capital Juba. There, Harrie Brekelmans (58) and Henk Schuurs (59), veterans of the Regiment of Engineers, are rebuilding a 100 feet-long bridge. Since 1999 they have already built fifteen bridges, but this is the first project in which they are responsible for logistical matters such as transport. The bridge dating from 1944 is a gift from the Dutch Ministry of Defense and must ensure that the transport of people and goods can continue in the rainy season. But no matter how eagerly the former military personnel come into action, the trucks with the parts of the bridge are missing. The last message is that they are 400 kilometers away on the border with Kenya.
Luck is not on their side. Pirates off the coast of Somalia have hijacked a ship that also has the two Dutch containers on board. The captain finds the threat too great and makes a right turn to Jeddah, a port in Saudi Arabia. There the containers are loaded onto a small ship. With a two-week delay, the vessel finally lands in Kenya’s port Mombasa in mid-October. Meanwhile, the financial crisis around the world has gripped. Due to the weakening of the euro against the dollar, there is suddenly a gap of 11,000 dollars in the budget of the project (a small 8,000 euros). Costs for increased fuel prices, import duties and the use of armed convoys must be paid by the veterans from their own pocket. “Two years ago, Sudan was still urgent. The war in the province of Darfur was engraved with everyone. Due to the financial crisis, the money for reconstruction has evaporated from one day to the next. Machines stand still and the people are fired”, Schuurs says.
It is only after Brekelmans himself has started to take pole position in the port of Mombasa, that there is a shot. The 33 ton heavy containers are loaded on two trucks. “A day or four, then they are there,” the transporter estimates. That turns out to be too optimistic for a week or two. Delays at the border, a sprung suspension, broken gearbox and a series of broken tires are still among the normal obstacles. It only gets really intense when the convoy drives an ambush of an armed band. One of the Kenyan drivers is shot dead after which the fiercely shocked drivers refuse to drive a meter. Only when an armed escort has been arranged, there will be movement again in the convoy. The setbacks and changing schedules do not take the veterans a moment out of their actions. Schuurs: “As soldiers, we are used to dealing with unexpected circumstances. We are dependent on each other and we come up with a solution for every problem “.
The journey to the destination is an severe journey. From Nairobi we fly towards the Sudan border. Under the guidance of the Kenyan army, we go by car through no man’s land. A few years ago, the bridge builders were still overtaken by the Turkana tribe. Now it remains quiet. For two days we follow a wide sand and gravel path across the dry and hot African plains. Some pieces are so bad that we can drive at most walking pace. We pass countless minefields, wrecked vehicles, army camps and settlements with wooden huts. Children with bow and arrow guard a herd of goats and women carry heavy piles of firewood on their heads. We spend the night in a British encampment from which land mines are cleaned up. We also encounter various bridges that the veterans have built since 1999. There is always an inspection which shows that there is a lot of suspicion of the maintenance of the bridges. The idea of the veterans to set up a bridge school where Sudanese people are trained has not yet started on the government.
Almost a week after leaving the Netherlands we reach the Juba, the poor and dirty capital of South Sudan. Just outside the city is a camp of the German aid organization GTZ. On behalf of the United Nations and the World Food Program, this organization sets up roads and dikes. Here the former engineers are camped in a pale green army tent, which stands in groups of three under the sparse trees. We share the tent with mosquitoes, a frog, a path and a walking branch. Unlike during the day it is cold at night. “Sudan has a harsh desert climate. The rain and heat are our worst enemy, “says Henk Schuurs. “In the rainy season the roads change into mud pools and the country is impassable while in the dry period women sometimes have to walk kilometers with jugs of water on their heads”.
Two days later, the bridge builders are guests at the Dutch embassy in Juba. Ambassador Norbert Braakhuis hears the stories on a terrace on the Nile. “Fantastic work. The veterans jump into the gap that international aid organizations leave behind. They are not designed for a country that is in a transition from war to peace. The work is also immediately visible to the people in Sudan “. The fact that the former soldiers pay for a large part of the costs and even have to pay their own airline ticket is going too far. “We will have to find a solution, otherwise no veteran will do this work”. The bridge builders are also convinced: “If we had anticipated this, we would never have started the pilot project” veterans with a mission “. In addition to financial sacrifices, the veterans are also away from home for weeks. Harrie Brekelmans: “You can only do this work if the home front is 100 percent behind you. They are not completed projects for a week or two”. Four weeks later than planned, the containers arrive with the components of the bridge. The next morning at 6 a.m. the building is started immediately. Schuurs and Brekelmans get help from a platoon of soldiers and clearly feel like it. “Finally we are building! The preparations swallowed 95 percent of the time. Compared to this, the construction of the bridge is only a piece of cake. This is for our routine work “, says Brekelmans.
Just as everything seems to be going well, the two former soldiers are involved in a car accident. The car of the veterans collides with another car that suddenly shoots the road. In no time they are surrounded by a crowd of angry Sudanese. “I thought for a moment that it was over. There were more than a hundred people around us with fire-breathing eyes. Everything I love is flashing past me”, Schuurs says. Only when a tribal elder with the help of what soldiers intervenes, the peace returns and the work can be continued. The panels are put together on the side and are ready within days. A shovel pulls the monster over the water to the right place and applies sand for the ramps and exits. At the official opening, the military attaché is left without notice, a disappointment for the veterans. Schuurs: “It is important that defense supports our work. Not only with equipment, but also with permits and contacts with local authorities. Moreover, the defense must plan the projects more tightly and have an eye for financial setbacks. These are hard conditions to make the ‘veterans with a mission’ project a success “. The Sudanese villagers quickly discovered the bridge. “In the past, cars drove here and waded women through the water up to their waist. Now they can go through like that. That is what we ultimately do for it “, the veterans observe with satisfaction.
• The Ministry of Defense has set up the ‘veterans with a mission’ project in collaboration with the Veterans Institute and the National Commission for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development.
• The intention is to deploy former military personnel for humanitarian missions in former staffing areas.
• The veterans Henk Schuurs and Harrie Brekelmans are carrying out a pilot project to gain experience for project “veterans with a mission”.
• The project consists of the construction of an army bridge in the south of Sudan.
• Since 1999 the veterans have built sixteen bridges and four have been restored.
• The veterans now organize the logistics themselves for the first time. Previously it ran through the diocese of Torit, a city in southern Sudan.
• The Ministry of Defense donates the 33 meter long bailey (army) bridge. The National Commission for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development pays the transport of the material to Sudan.
• There are also projects in Bosnia, Korea, Cambodia and Iraq.
Bart Coolen is a freelance journalist and photographer and member of the International Federation of Journalists.