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    'If you have to have peace, then you have to start
    looking after it'

    Lieutenant General (retd) Dewan Prem Chand

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    He is a legend among peacekeepers.

    Lieutenant General (retd) Dewan Prem Chand is credited with helping to bring normalcy in the Congo, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Cyprus.

    His stint with the UN started when he was asked to command its forces in the Congo's Katanga province. The next assignment saw him being pulled out of retirement and posted to Cyprus. He returned to Africa several times after that.

    The old man of peacekeeping now lives in Mussoorie, away from phones and crowds. Josy Joseph met him at his beautiful cottage, which commands a majestic view of the Himalayas.

    You have been in the Congo where India lost 39 soldiers. There was a government, a rebel force, some vested interests and the alien Indians. Do you see that repeated in Sierra Leone?

    No such similarities except the situation where there was a colonial power, and that colonial power handed over this particular country and gave it independence. Problems start amongst the people when they get independence. You start getting involved with politics and politicians. With it authority, money, power and motivation, in addition to mineral resources, or any resources that are available.

    Sierra Leone, I have never been there, but I am told it is a very beautiful country and the Britishers ruled it for a long time. But when independence came, similar problems arose. Naturally, there was an upheaval. There was a lot of people who wanted to fill the vacuum the Britishers had left. People started fighting each other to get as much they could of their country. Many years of serious conflict. Thousands of people were killed. Eventually African states decided that we will deal with the problem. Algeria, Liberia, and many other southern states then discussed the matters with the UN, with the Britishers and decided to form a force and look after the problems between the government and the people who were fighting them.

    How similar is the evolving situation in Sierra Leone?

    In This Series
      Part 1
      'Our boys will get released soon'
      Part 2
      'Sierra Leone's more than a mistake'
      Part 3
      'Prevent, prevent, prevent!'

    Congo was given independence by Belgium. Once again there you had a great power which had been ruling that country with the force of arms, force of authority, and force of money. When they suddenly left, there was a vacuum. It had to be filled. So they had a lot of political parties who were connected with the Congo problems. The Belgians were still there; they didn't want to leave that very, very rich country. Copper was highly prized in those days. Plus they had a very big multinational army. British, Americans and Belgians had got together and put in tremendous amount of infrastructure into Belgian Congo. They had done a great deal of good work -- building roads, railway lines and bridges. And getting this country organised for business purposes. They did that very well indeed. But then because the situation emerged where they had lot of people within the country to share power with the Belgians, they wanted to keep as much of the power as they could.

    One of them was a person called President Tshombe. And he was made president of the state Katanga. He was told to look after Katanga because there is a large amount of copper in Katanga. So that part of Congo seceded from Congo. That is where the problems arose.

    The Congo government wanted to run as a united government. During that period a lot of atrocities took place in various parts of the Congo. Because the Belgians had decided to leave, and once they left there was a vacuum of authority, of power, of the army, the police. Law and order broke down in many parts. And they were unable to control it. Then the government of Congo decided to request the UN to come and help. Much is the same in Sierra Leone. The government there has requested the UN to come and help them.

    Our peacekeepers in Sierra Leone are not prepared to fight a full-fledged war. The same was the situation in the Congo, Somalia etc. Is it justified on the part of the government and the UN to send troops not prepared fully for the worst-case scenario?

    It is not a question of a mistake. It is a question of understanding the role of the UN peacekeeping force. Now how does peacekeeping start? There is no such thing as peacekeeping in the United Nations Charter. Actually Mr Brian Urquhart [former executive secretary to UN secretary general and a close friend of General Prem Chand] was in San Franscico when the Charter was signed in 1945 after the Second World War. In it you find "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". In fact to that extent, the UN has succeeded in keeping us away from a third world war. It is a difference that it is the word 'war' that they said, because there is no mention of internal conflict and any other things anywhere.

    So there is a question of understanding peacekeeping as such. It is not to fight anywhere. Peacekeeping, as it is meant, is to keep the peace. To keep the peace, you need to have peace. It is a matter of not permitting any conflict to take place, that is where peacekeeping comes. When two parties have agreed to a peacekeeping arrangement, and told the UN that we will not fight, that is when peacekeeping comes in.

    So who has put the soldiers in these bloody situations?

    It is a misunderstanding by the parties of what peacekeeping means. Peacekeeping means peace between me and you and there is someone to keep the peace. If we start fighting, then he is caught in between. Who is to blame? It is part and parcel of the kind of situation, mainly because of human weaknesses and politics and politicians and vested interests of parties hoping that they would get something out of it. Money or minerals or wealth. Again, people start fighting for getting more power for themselves. And in-between people get caught. If you have to have peace, then you have to start looking after it.

    How do you ensure the safety of peacekeepers?

    Peacekeepers keep their own. They have instructions to use force only in certain situations.

    So whatever is happening in Sierra Leone, and had happened in the Congo, was all expected?

    You never expect anything in these kinds of situations. Everything is totally unexpected. You have to deal with the unexpected at every moment of the day. Many times things went wrong in the Congo. You deal with the situation as best as you can.

    What has India gained with its participation in peacekeeping?

    You do it because you are part of the United Nations. You are part of a club, part of a great organisation, the only organisation that can keep us from going at each other's throat. You are part of the greatest organisation the world ever had, the world has ever known.

    And suffer more failures, more difficulties?

    Some have been failures. Some have been greatly successful. Namibia. To an extent, Cambodia. Congo, it was a great success.

    India is facing more threats, more counterinsurgency problems. Can we afford to send our soldiers to keep the peace in alien nations?

    Fortunately India has been connected with quite a few successes. That is why one of the first countries the UN asks for is India. They have learnt from experience, and they keep training. We should assist a world organisation, of which you are a member. It is your family.

    How did your connection with the UN begin?

    In Congo. I had nothing to do with the United Nations till then. I was part of the Indian Army, commanding a division in Ferozepur. That time there was a brigade group in Congo, under Brigadier Raja, in Katanga. Things were not going very well. They needed more troops, a larger force. So they decided to upgrade the particular brigade to a division. To give more strength, more power, they upgraded the rank from brigadier [of the commanding officer] to major general.

    They looked around for a man to send. I was lucky enough to be selected by the army chief and the defence minister, Mr Krishna Menon. I was suddenly told to go to the Congo. To go to Katanga as the area commander.

    In Katanga there was fighting. People were being killed. A friend of mine, Major Ajith Singh, was killed. We never found his body.

    When I landed there it wasn't that bad. We had learnt some lessons; we had been able to reverse their plan, to ensure that too much trouble didn't take place. So I was very fortunate -- in the sense that I found that the Katanga area had gradually been successful in peacemaking operations.

    What was the crucial battle during your tenure?

    The major fighting was in 1962 against Tshombe's troops in Katanga. It was a battle where we had 60 to 70 casualties, killed and wounded. Tshombe's may have been in the hundreds, because they were in the bushes and we couldn't count. They were led by mercenaries, people who had come from various armies of Europe, Belgium and France, retired people. Eventually it came to a stage where the UN decided to use force under Chapter 7 against Tshombe's forces. We had to use force to break out of Katanga, Elizabethville, in four or five directions. So it was a big battle for about a week, 10 days. It was an operational battle.

    When was Captain Salaria, the only Param Vir Chakra in UN peacekeeping missions, killed?

    It was the year before. He was of my regiment, 3/1 Gurkha. Gursharan Singh Salaria. He died in the battle at the airport. It was surrounded by the Kantangese gendarmerie. And there was a post, which was held very strongly by the gendarmerie. Captain Salaria was asked to clear the post. A whole junction it was. If it had not been cleared it would have been difficult for us to move ahead. He was killed, and there were other casualties.

    So the UN decided to use force in December 1962?

    About January 17-18, Tshombe came and signed the surrender. The secession of Katanga ended and it went back to Congo.

    Was it the only mission where the UN fought and brought back a split-away region?

    I would say so. It is the only one where we had a large-scale combat operation. A whole brigade group against Tshombe's troops to get the peace back. The only way to get peace was to attack Tshombe's troops, to defeat them in combat. It was a very fine job. The person who did the job was a very fine officer, General Noronha, then a brigadier who took over from Brigadier Raja. He is now no more. I was lucky that I had him as my brigade commander. Again happenstance. Don't forget this word.

    You had a great team?

    A wonderful team, wonderful team. Gurkhas is one of the finest battalions.

    Your next stop was Cyprus.

    Cyprus happened much later. It happened because of my relationships with Brian Urquhart, Secretary General U Thant and others. Otherwise why should they pull me back? By that time I had retired from the army. Very unusual.

    So you were pulled out of retirement and promoted to lieutenant general?

    That is another story. I was given that rank in Cyprus. Cyprus was attacked by the Turks, by a large army. We had a very big operation. Fortunately things went well. And on the recommendation of the UN, the Indian Army gave me a higher rank. I was a major general; I was posted as lieutenant general.

    You were the only Indian there?

    Yes. I had no Indian forces. The Turkish Army, 40,000 soldiers, attacked Cyprus when I was there. [There were] about 3,000 UN peacekeepers. It was not an attack against us. They attacked the Cypriots. And Cyprus's army was about 10,000. And we were in between, that is where we kept the peace.

    A large part of peacekeeping depends on three things. First, prevention of conflict. Second, prevention of conflict. Third, prevention of conflict. You don't let them clash. You keep thinking how you can prevent the conflict so that people do not get to grips. Once they get to grips with each other, the situation gets complicated.

    At the moment in Sierra Leone they have not got to the stage where they are fighting each other. There is the government on one side and the rebels on the other. They are not fighting each other today as it is. They are against the UN.

    UN peacekeeping depends on a great deal of cooperation. You are on one side and I am on the other, and we have been fighting for a long time. We both have to go to the UN and say "please help us". Then the UN secretary general asks both of us if peacekeepers should come in. That is when you go in. This is usually what happens.

    That didn't happen in Congo. Tshombe was not happy with the UN. Because he wanted to keep Katanga. Mind you, he was backed by the Belgians because they were very much interested in the copper mines. They had built this copper empire. So that was another situation.

    In this case [in Sierra Leone], they had said that if the UN comes in we will co-operate. There is no co-operation. As soon the UN comes in you have hostages! They have not come to fight, they have come with normal weapons, you are not supposed to fight. Immediately you find them coming and taking you hostage. You see, the co-operation is lacking.

    The whole thing starts in the UN with the mandate of the Security Council. I think the Cyprus mandate, if you read it, is the best: "To prevent the recurrence of conflict." This to me is essential.

    Your command in Cyprus was successful. How was it being all alone commanding forces from other countries?

    Fortunately, mostly it was successfully. Except when the Turkish Army attacked. What can you do in between? What I am saying is, it is not only peacekeeping that matters, but there are the great powers which always have to come in to assist the Security Council, the permanent members and others. That was the advantage of Namibia.

    Namibia was your last stint?

    Yes, the biggest, most successful operation. For 10 years I was connected to it. I stayed there for one year to implement the accord. I travelled around for 10 years, to South Africa, to Namibia, to Europe, to Rhodesia at various meetings. The whole time, the great powers were helping us. There was a contact group, consisting of various countries -- Britain, Germany, France, Canada. They were all there all the time. They were the ones to use the influence, not with weapons but with the bigger weapons of economy and politics. We conducted the elections actually on March 21, 1990. This year was the tenth anniversary of it.

    So there you played an active political role, all through, and less of a military role?

    Peacekeeping has also got diplomatic and political aspects. You have to do not soldiering alone. You have to also be a diplomat. Purpose being, not to let it happen. To prevent conflict. That is why I said, Prevent, Prevent, Prevent.

    Fortunately, at the moment in Sierra Leone there is no conflict. So far, fortunately, there has been no clash between the UN and the government and the rebels. No casualties. There may be some people injured or so. To prevent both sides from clashing, you have to do everything. Once it [conflict] happens, the situation keeps changing, changing and changing every day.

    What was your role in Zimbabwe?

    In Zimbabwe it was mainly discussions on how to organise a situation to avoid conflict, how Rhodesia would be given independence by the British, and how their army would be disarmed and how they could be put in certain camps where they would be separated from the people who were fighting them. Rogert Mugabe's people, they had been fighting for 2-2.5 years. From 1978 to '80. Now it is a great thing that through discussions the conflict was avoided. In Rhodesia we were successful in preparing the ground, and later when the British took over it was their colony.

    Any regrets about your career?

    I don't think so. I can't recollect anything that was really bad. It couldn't because of happenstance. The good Lord was holding my hand all the time. I don't think anybody has asked me that question.

    What are the challenges other than the enemy that peacekeepers have to face? Can you tell us something from your personal experience?

    There was in Namibia a great threat or two. The whites' army when they went to Namibia, they lost a lot of soldiers in the Zambesi river. There are very many big rivers. It is a hot country. They jumped into the river and got eaten up by crocodiles.

    The second one was cerebral malaria. For that they had laid down great precautions. Everybody had to be under mosquito nets, which were first flitted with antiseptics. Nobody was allowed to go around wearing shorts.

    Thirdly, the water. It was brackish. They had arranged very big desalination plants where it was filtered, filtered, filtered.

    There is a lot of talk about the high scales of pay in peacekeeping.

    That is true, there is a lot of talk about that. I was being paid by the Indian Army pay scale. Allowances were not very high then, now they are very high. The reason why it is very high is because people found that soldiers coming from Asia were getting very much less than the people coming from Europe. So naturally, now they have been given better allowances. That is the reason, and rightly so. The soldier rightly deserves it. They have done a big job, risked their lives. I think people make too much of it.

    Any fallouts of the high pay?

    We need to be extremely careful that the troops do not get into any money racketeering. There have been a few cases. But there is always the temptation, because there is so much money.

    Any other peculiarity of Africa that has hit UN operations there?

    The other very big thing is accident. The UN has lost many officers and men in car accidents. The reason for it is that men from European countries are used to fast driving. The roads are first class, excellent control. When you go to Africa, you find the same lovely roads. But no traffic control. So I used to tell my officers: Prevent incidents of conflict and accident.


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    Photographs: Indian army

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