The recent spell of lockdowns unlocked a flood of memories of my maiden quarantine during UN peacemaking operations in Angola in 1993. My team was deployed in the historic town of Cuito Cuanavale, witness to major battles, literally the ‘Panipat of Africa’. This town defined the ceasefire line between two warring factions, Russian and Cuban-backed ruling group MPLA and the West-backed UNITA, led by the dreaded Jonas Savimbi. Our living quarters were in a war-ravaged building, pock-marked with shells and bullets. While we cribbed, a bigger surprise awaited me.
During the first rotation, I was nominated as Team Commander, Mucuio. It was a rebel stronghold surrounded by minefields, deep inside jungle territory. Our habitation was three thatched huts, built on stilts to keep out reptiles and snakes. All supplies, mail and water were ferried by a weekly lifeline, a helicopter sortie.
Rationing of water forced me to improvise the alum and water purification kit to utilise water from the nearby pond for bathing and basic hygiene; however, my team-mates found it an unnecessary risk.
Leadership in UN is persuasive and my team included two officers, Bob White from Canada and Gordon from Guinea Bissau. Gordon, the language interpreter, knew very little English and in trying to communicate with him, I ended up improving my Portuguese considerably, which proved a blessing later.
The place had a natural lockdown effect due to the fear of snakes, wildlife, mines and munitions littered all over. We had no Internet and mobiles. Our only connection with the outside world was an HF radio set, limited to a cryptic evening report. Just before the resupply, Capt White had a health issue and flew out. Next week, it was the turn of Maj Gordon to leave, again on medical grounds. He was replaced by Maj Abdulla from Jordan. His linguistic skills were limited to very little English. As commander, I had no choice but to utilise a smattering of Portuguese, combined with sign language, to communicate with the rebels.
The next welcome resupply mission, ironically enough, proved to be the harbinger of quarantine. MI-8 choppers in UN were flown by Russian pilots, with elementary proficiency in English. They were always in a hurry and the routine involved a frenetic unloading of fuel barrels, jerry cans and cartons, and loading empty ones.
After the helicopter took off, I could not locate my colleague and raised an emergency on the radio set after a thorough search. In a very apologetic tone, I was told that my team-mate had hid inside the helicopter and travelled back to HQ. His explanation was simple, he just couldn’t cope with the place.
Now, I was literally under quarantine for the next week, till the resupply mission. In any case, we always were maintaining social distance with rebels. That experience acted as a sort of vaccine, for future lockdowns.
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