“Open Fire”. It was the first time I had ever got such orders without any hesitancy. The stone pelters had refused to disperse emboldened after the previous day’s violence when their projectile nearly killed a second in command of an infantry battalion sending him off to the ICU. The crowd disbursed instantly as a volley of rounds was fired over the heads of mob leaders. I was at that time posted as the senior most staff officer of then Brigadier Bipin Rawat, commander of Indian Brigade part of United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Democratic Republic of Congo.
When he landed in Congo, there had been a series of false allegations leveled against our soldiers by those whose interests we had floundered with. The first thing he did after assuming command was to target the international media which had been hostile towards Indian troops. “How we handle the media is more important than how well we fight the rebel groups”, He made his intentions absolutely clear in his opening address to us. It came as no surprise when in a short time the UN hierarchy started recognizing the professional competence of the Indian contingent in comparison to that of other armies.
A man of great conviction, and pragmatic in his approach, he took decisions promptly without referring to his superiors. His hold over the military and civilian UN staff was good and given his diplomatic skills he knew how to say no without ruffling many feathers. To us in the headquarters it was a treat to serve under a person who kept his cool whenever the situation so demanded.
When Laurent Nkunda, the rebel leader advanced to the outskirts of Goma, capital of North Kivu state, where we were stationed, the ill prepared Congolese army withdrew hastily abandoning the town at his mercy. The Brigade commander disregarding his own safety monitored each and every post and patrol, round the clock providing the much needed protection to the hapless populace. Nkunda blinked first and accepted the ceasefire; the Force Commander’s appreciation awarded to our commander subsequently was well deserved.
We had all the good words for him when we repatriated back to India after a fifteen months successful tenure. He had a special affinity towards his ‘Team Congo’ and would exhibit his affection whenever we met in later years. His becoming the Army Chief and subsequently the first Chief of Defence Staff was rejoiced by all of us who had served under him overseas.
When Mrs Madhulika Rawat, his wife visited us for a few days, we organized a picnic on the banks of The Great Kivu lake. The jet ski water scooter the couple rode, capsized as they neared the jetty. “We never leave each other,” he said laughingly as we pulled both of them out, fully drenched. His words came alive on that fateful day when both of them went down once again, this time in a chopper. They stayed together even in death and were rightfully cremated on the same pyre. Rest in Peace Sir.
Col HP Singh, VSM
An alumini of the Lawrence School Sanawar and NDA Khadakwasla, the officer served with ex CDS in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008-9. He is a prolific writer and based at Mohali, Punjab