It's training men: the Irish building an army in Africa
Published 27/12/2012 | 06:00
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.
These men are among the cream of the crop and will go on to become the platoon sergeants and officers of the new Somalian regular army.
As Sgt Gillen sees it: "Somalia has a new government, but a government is nothing without an army that can stand by it. This army will help the Somali government get up off its knees and move forward."
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.
The European Union Training Mission Somalia (EUTMS) is a simple but effective mechanism to create the nucleus of a professional army for Somalia.
The overall mission is due to co-operation between the EU, US, the African Union and the UN.
Consisting of instructors from 12 European nations, the EUTMS is currently being led by Ireland and funded by both the EU and the United States.
Currently, over 500 young, poorly educated Somalis arrive at Bihanga training camp in Uganda's Ibanda province, near the border with Rwanda, in six-month intervals.
They arrive not knowing how to use a knife and fork or a flush toilet; they leave as trained soldiers taking to the frontline in their country's fight for stability.
So far, up to 3,000 Somali troops have been trained at the Bihanga facility.
Though the training camp is run by a tough old-school French Foreign Legion Lieutenant-Colonel, the overall mission is commanded by Ireland's Colonel Mick Beary, a 38-year veteran of numerous overseas missions.
"We're very pleased with the training cycles. I reckon this is one of the better bunches I've seen," says Col Beary.
Ireland has taken over command of the first stage of the mission from the Spanish. The mission is a prestigious one and the Irish are keen to hold the reins for its next phase, which will see the training camp move to Camp Jazeera in Mogadishu next year.
Col Beary is confident his team can continue to provide the mentoring and training of the standard required.
"The Somalis performed very well fighting against Al Shabaab alongside the African Union forces opening up main supply routes outside of Mogadishu," he added.
But for now, that's all a world away for Pvt Osman, as he and his comrades leave the range and head to their dining hall.