Sunday 1 February 2015

It's training men: the Irish building an army in Africa

Our boys are helping these men to become good soldiers, says Declan Power

If you spent a portion of Christmas Day listening to the radio or watching TV, chances are you came across a variety of adverts to help the Third World.

You can buy a goat or donkey for Africa, or do your bit for peace in Palestine by purchasing an olive tree to be planted in the arid earth.

But there is one interesting project being grown in Africa with the help of the Irish taxpayer that isn't being talked about.

There are no olive trees here in Bihanga, a military training camp deep in the bowels of Uganda.

This form of aid doesn't involve goats or chickens. Rather it involves planting the seeds of stability for the fractured state of Somalia. And it all begins with Private Osman.

Young Osman stumbles forward, urged on by his instructor. It's been a long day, his fatigues are damp and sweat glistens on the young Somali's shaven head.

Taking in a ragged gulp of air, he aims and hits the target, the bullet from his battered AK-47 assault rifle sending splinters flying from the target's silhouette.

Pvt Osman, aged 19, grins up at his instructor who slaps him on the shoulder and offers words of encouragement.

The words have the gentle burr of a Donegal accent, but it's not Jimmy McGuinness doing the coaching here, it's Sgt Declan Gillen (38) from Ballyshannon.

Sgt Gillen is part of a European training team and Osman . . . well, he's the future of the new Somalian army.

Sgt Gillen checks the weapons of his platoon of recruits and supervises them as they unload what's left of their live ammunition.

An experienced non-commissioned officer, Sgt Gillen has previously served in Liberia and Chad during his 18-plus years of service.

Sgt Gillen is at ease with his young Somali recruits; he can already speak a good bit of their native tongue and they often respond to him in English.

The eager young Somalis surge around him as the training team commander, Lieutenant Stephen O'Byrne (31) from Rathfarnham, arrives to check up on how the range practice is going.

"They're basically a clean slate when they arrive and require training from a very basic level, but they're keen and eager."

These young men will soon be launched into combat against the Islamist radicals, Al Shabaab, as soon as they return home.

Irish Independent

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