Christmas peace makers
After a five-day patrol in the oppressive heat and choking dust of central Africa you might expect the first thing an Irish soldier would do on arriving back at base would be to climb into a hammock with a cold beer.
But the reality of life at Camp Ciara, where 420 Irish troops are stationed in south-eastern Chad, is somewhat different.
For starters it's a booze-free camp, where a can of Pepsi and a Mars bar in the evening is about as indulgent as it gets.
Down time is more likely to be spent jogging around the nearby airstrip or, in the weeks running up to Christmas, designing and building a crib.
Crib building is a tradition borrowed from the toughest army of them all, the French Foreign Legion, and a competition has been organised to find the best "crib builder" on the camp.
It is a welcome diversion for many of the troops because they struggle through their tour of duty on what is the most logistically difficult overseas mission ever undertaken by the Defence Forces.
Our troops are providing protection for up to 160,000 people displaced by war and banditry as part of a 3,700-strong European Union force (EUFOR) in eastern Chad.
The Irish have a massive patrol area -- roughly the size of Munster, Connacht and Leinster put together -- which is sprinkled with camps full of refugees who fled across the border from Darfur, as well as tens of thousands of people displaced by internal conflict in Chad.
Army engineers chose a dusty plateau, close to the ramshackle town of Goz Beida, just 70 kilometres from the border with Sudan, as the location for the hub of Irish operations, Camp Ciara.
They quickly set about building a desert fortress surrounded by razor wire and dry moats.
The proximity of water sources was a key consideration in a land where the river beds are dry for most of the year.
Two wells were dug and a sophisticated water filtration system put in place. By the time EUFOR became operational last March they were able to provide up to 45,000 litres of clean water each day for washing and cleaning.
Over 100 air conditioned tents were constructed, with a series of massive energy generators at their heart, guzzling 2,800 litres of diesel each day to power the camp.
Light artillery, Mowag armoured personnel carriers and other army vehicles had to be shipped from Dublin to Doula in Cameroon and then driven over 2,000 kilometres on mainly dirt roads to reach the camp.
Massive stocks of food, packed rations and bottled water also had to be flown in from France.
On top of that, the soldiers had to acclimatise to the sweltering heat, with temperatures often soaring to 45C in the middle of the day.
"The most difficult aspect of this mission for us has been the climate," says Lieutenant Colonel Kieran Brennan, the battalion commander at Camp Ciara.
"It is debilitating, but you get used to it very quickly. The most important thing is to have a constant supply of water."
Most of troops under Lt Col Brennan's command are drawn from Munster, but there is also a team of Dutch marines as well as French engineers, communications and medical personnel, bringing the full complement at Camp Ciara close to 500.
In the conflict-ravaged area around Camp Ciara, the local population live in mud and straw huts, and the most common mode of transport is the donkey. Owning a camel is regarded as a status symbol and fatal inter-village disputes over the ownership of goats are not uncommon.
There are no paved roads or sanitation, and journey times are calculated in days rather than kilometres.
A mobile-phone mast above the market square in Goz Beida looks almost incongruous in a place with so few modern conveniences. The EU mission has been largely uneventful for the Irish since last June when shots were fired at a patrol as it monitored fighting between rebels and the Chadian army.
The onset of the rainy season calmed tensions in the area because dirt roads became impassable, limiting the mobility of the rebel forces.
However, when the dry weather returned in October, those roads became passable again, leaving much of the local population in fear of further rebel incursions, which in the past have brought murder and looting in their wake.
The rebels have been gathering across the border in Darfur for several weeks now and are widely expected to make another attempt a wrestle power from Chadian president Idriss Deby after two failed coup attempts in the past two years.
Although the situation is officially calm, Lt Col Brennan is all too aware that things could change quickly.
Each day he sends out a fleet of armoured personnel carriers on patrol and is confident his troops are "fully equipped to deal with any contingency".
The patrols serve a twin purpose -- gathering intelligence and deterring rebel or criminal attacks -- and have been broadly welcomed by locals.
"Before the soldiers came there was stealing and killing," says Fatima Youssef, a grandmother in her 60s living in Goz Beida.
"We were very afraid, but with EUFOR here now we are less so." Usually tours abroad last for six months with an opportunity for holidays somewhere in the middle.
However, due to the difficulty in getting large numbers of troops to and from Chad, the tour of duty there has been shortened to four months with no vacation.
Few of the soldiers grumble about this because they will have six weeks of uninterrupted holidays when they return home after the next rotation in January.
"It is better than being back home in the wind and rain," quips Private Daniel Clogan from Limerick, who is on his first tour abroad.
"There are great facilities, a gym and good food. I'll be as fit as a fiddle by the time I get home."
Pte Clogan is one of those caught up in a fitness craze which has gripped Camp Ciara. The high temperatures make it easier to lose weight through exercise and every afternoon, just after 4pm, the gates of the camp are opened to allow soldiers to run around the nearby airstrip.
"Not seeing your family for four months straight is the toughest thing," says Private Richard James from Kilkenny.
"But the communications facilities that have been set up here are excellent. It is easy to keep in touch with mobiles and internet and hopefully there will be some sort of satellite video link set up for Christmas."
One of the most difficult aspects of the EU mission has been the massive area of eastern Chad which the EUFOR force has to patrol. Critics claim the numbers of troops available are completely inadequate if proper protection is to be given.
The UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that the region has seen more than 120 attacks on aid workers -- including car hijackings, robberies and four killings -- so far this year.
Tipperary-born Deirdre Delaney, a programme manager with Concern, the only Irish aid agency working in Chad, says the jury is still out on whether EUFOR has been a success. "It is hard to say whether it has had a major impact. I don't think it has been here long enough. I don't think it has been tested for long enough," she says.
Ireland has signed up for a new 6,000-strong UN force taking over from EUFOR next March which could tie the Defence Forces to Chad until 2011. In the meantime EUFOR is determined to improve its standing prior to the handover.
As part of this effort, an Irish Civil and Military Cooperation (CIMIC) team has been busy dispensing advice to local women on their security after several were attacked or raped while collecting firewood or harvesting crops.
They have also been visiting schools dispensing items such as pencil cases, crayons and copybooks donated by people in Ireland. "We're trying to win hearts and minds and this helps to give a positive impression of EUFOR," says CIMIC's Commandant Conor O'Shea.
It is a small gesture, but one which greatly encourages children to come to school in an area where there is little emphasis on education.
Of more pressing concern to humanitarian groups, however, is that the displaced people being protected by EUFOR are still reluctant to return home from the camps.
Despite the stabilising presence of foreign troops, people still fear they will be at risk if the rebels launch their expected offensive.
"I think security is their biggest reason (for not going back). They are getting word that there is still uneasiness and a lot of tension," says Ms Delaney. "There is a continuing tension in that they are always expecting something to happen. But nobody knows if it is going to happen or when it is going to happen."