MALAKAL, Sudan â€” The pair of white river launches marked with United Nations insignia leapt forward as the sailors opened the throttles, cutting deep trenches into the dark waters of southern Sudan’s Blue Nile.For the people of the riverside town of Malakal the sight of the powerful boats slicing through the water has become normal, and they waved cheerily at the blue-helmeted Bangladeshis of this unique section of UN peacekeepers.
Commander Mohammad Shafiq Al Alam leads the 78 sailors of the Bangladeshi navy who make up the “Riverine Force Unit” based near Malakal.
“Our mission is to show the face of the UN on the waterways, keep them open to commerce and escort the transport barges,” he said from his base housing six launches that patrol the river in pairs.
In place since May 2006, the unit is the “first of its kind” in peacekeeping missions, said Lieutenant Mahmoud Al Rahman, who added that it was natural for the task to fall to Bangladesh because of its extensive experience not only on the sea but also on rivers.
A waterborne UN force makes sense for the area around Malakal, where the 150,000-strong population is largely concentrated on the banks of the Nile and where the lack of roads makes boats the best form of transport.
The United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) was created in March 2005 to help keep a tenuous peace between the Khartoum government and former southern rebels who that January signed a peace deal after 21 years of civil war.
In April, this year, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a six-month extension of the UNMIS mandate until October 31.
Peter Maxwell, the head of UNMIS which is tasked with protecting UN staff, equipment and installations and helping the authorities to protect civilians, said the United Nations also undertook humanitarian and development work.
A total of 10,000 military personnel have been authorised for deployment as part of the UNMIS multinational peacekeeping force.
Some staff are for administrative and logistical support, while others focus on demining and reconstruction.
In November, the force intervened to end clashes in Malakal between the army and the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which left 120 people dead in the worst north-south violence since the peace deal was signed.
The tension still exists today but has been brought “under control,” said Colonel Anil Singh Rathore, who heads an Indian contingent.
But he added that “there is still a deep mistrust.” The two-decades-long civil war between north and south left more than two million people dead and four million displaced, according to UNMIS.
On the river several journalists boarded the Bangladeshi launches for a trip upstream to canal, an SPLM stronghold some 50 kilometresÂ south of Malakal.
It was named after the now abandoned Jonglei Canal Project, a joint Sudanese-Egyptian enterprise aimed at halting the evaporation of large amounts of water from the Nile.
But a planned visit to a UN-funded fishing cooperative did not happen after an SPLM commander denied the journalists access because he had not been warned in advance.
“General” Peter Barjor had trouble hiding his surprise at the arrival of so many journalists at the local garrison while he was training dozens of new recruits how to march.
The men, all in different clothes, were forbidden from talking to the journalists who were told not to film them.
On the return trip to base, the peacekeepers kept their fingers on the triggers of the machineguns mounted on the bows and sterns of their boats, but admitted they are rarely fired upon.
As the boats roared round a curve they slowed abruptly in order not to disturb a group of fierce Nile hippopotamuses common to the river before regaining speed again in a spray of water.
Between two patrols ranging across 300 kilometres up and downstream from their base, the Bangladeshi sailors admitted they can become rather bored.
“We watch our national television, eat our own food, but despite this we are still homesick,” said one.
However they consoled themselves with the thought of the money they will return to Bangladesh with â€” simple soldiers taking back $1,000 (750 euros) a month each and officers more than double that.