By Jiang Hangang, commanding officer of the 7th Chinese peacekeeping engineering contingent to Liberia
In April 2008, as a commanding officer of the 7th Chinese peacekeeping engineering contingent to Liberia, I flew to West Africa with about 270 peacekeepers for an 8-month-long peacekeeping mission.
At that time, a 14-year civil war just ended in Liberia, with everything waiting to be reconstructed and recovered. According to the agreement reached between China and the UN, our contingent was deployed at the 4th theater of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and was tasked with such tasks as road maintenance, bridge building, airport recovery and opening of temporary routes.
Hardly had we encamped in the mission area when we received UNMIL’s order to clear three traffic trunk lines in the 4th theater. The three roads were the arteries connecting various peacekeeping contingents in the theater and the lifeline for the transportation of international relief supplies. Their disconnection had caused shortage of materials in the 4th theater.
Having accepted the tasks, I led a unit to the site for preliminary inspection, and what we saw at the Zwedru-Tapeta road left me speechless. It was a 116km dirt road meandering in dense forests with many sections blocked from the sun. It was a muddy road covered with big and small puddles, the biggest ones enough to engulf a car. Cars had to “snake” very carefully along the road as they might fall over onto the roadside forest or into a deep gulley at the slightest slip. The other two roads were not better.
Chinese peacekeepers worked hard for days to recover a section of the mountain road, but a downpour brushed our work away immediately. Then we rebuilt the road, only to see it brushed down again. Later we tried out a method of building road in the rain season, which basically involved de-sludging and draining, sand and rock filling, heightening the road camber, daylighting and ventilation, and deepening roadside grooves, and successfully resolved the problem of road maintenance in tropical rain forests.
Following this scientific method, we worked day and night to make up for lost time, cleared 69 harsh and key sections, and completed the task 6 days in advance to clear the three traffic trunk lines in the 4th theater. I remember clearly that at the work summary meeting of UNMIL, General Obiakor, Force Commander of the mission area, came up to me and saluted solemnly saying “You’ve made the locals understand that roads can be built in the rain season, and people can work at night. You job is much too impressive!”
During the peacekeeping mission in Liberia, the most unforgettable thing happened when our contingent was about to rotate back to China. In late November 2008, when we were preparing for the awarding ceremony, we received a request from the Liberian government to help them build a bridge which collapsed a few years ago and broke off the transportation route for international aid supplies between Port Harper and Liberia’s inland areas. The Liberian side had no capability to recover the bridge by itself.
As I conducted on-the-site inspections, I found the river was banked with steep slopes and cliffs with very narrow entrance and exit that was unsuitable for machinery. The bridge was more than five meters above the ground with bare rocks and torrents underneath, posing great risks to the workers. It would take at least a month to build a bridge in such a complex environment.
But the first echelon of the contingent had to leave Liberia for China in more than 20 days and it was uncertain whether the Liberian government could provide us with the materials we needed in time. UNMIL said we could choose to implement the task or not, it was our call.
Despite innumerable challenges, we Chinese peacekeepers decided to accept the request, and a 38-member taskforce of Party members was formed right away. They worked around the clock in shifts whether it was 50 degrees or raining cats and dogs.
Fifteen days later, we completed a high-quality, single-layered steel-structured Bailey bridge, the longest in the country. When the Geeriver bridge was inaugurated on December 12, local people gathered around the bridge singing and dancing, chanting: “China”, “China”, “China”...
Because of this, Liberian President Sirleaf especially came to see off the departing Chinese contingent and met with me. She held my hand and said, “You’ve worked day and night to build the longest Bailey bridge for Liberia. This is the best gift you give to the Liberian people. Chinese peacekeeping engineers are our most distinguished guests.”
During the 8-month peacekeeping mission, our contingent completed a spate of highly difficult construction tasks with high quality. We repaired and maintained 332km roads, upgraded and renovated 118km roads, built 5 bridges and provided engineering support more than 100 times.
The UNMIL 4th Theater said the Chinese engineering contingent was the only one in the mission area that kept on construction in the rain season, and Liberia’s vice minister of public affairs exclaimed that “heavy rain cannot stop Chinese engineers from marching ahead!”