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Desert Duty On The Iraqi Border

by Uwe U. Beyer

Iraq and Kuwait. Two Muslim countries with social, economic and military differences and yet both identical in many other ways. Both are rich in oil resources and both are over 95 per cent desert.

In early August 1990, Iraq attacked Kuwait under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Expecting little resistance from western countries, Iraq violated Kuwait and set forth a series of events that would lead to the Persian Gulf War. The war, which pitted a powerful international coalition of forces against Iraq, ended in 1991 when Iraq’s military was decimated.

Following the war, the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission, UNIKOM, was created to monitor the internationally recognized boundary between the two countries. More specifically, UNIKOM’s job was to monitor the Khawr Abd Allah waterway and the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait. When UNIKOM was established Canada provided one senior officer to serve at mission headquarters and one regiment consisting of 300 Canadian Forces personnel of all ranks. And because the Gulf War had caused grievous damage to the infrastructure of Kuwait, many of the tasks associated with this mission fell heavily on combat engineers from Canada and other countries.

Canada activated and sent 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, 1 CER, from Chilliwack, B.C. This unit was a proud mixture of officers and non-commissioned officers who were up to the job and looked forward to their mission. 1 CER demonstrated professionalism throughout its tour of duty, and several key members received meritorious commendations and decorations for their service. Combat engineers are capable of deploying anywhere at anytime and under the most adverse conditions. However, the common soldier still relies on some common necessities supplied by the military support system or from home.

Under normal conditions, soldiers expect to arrive in a foreign country ready to perform mission objectives with the help of logistical support and resources. 1 CER arrived in Kuwait with the customary engineer tools and equipment required to do the job, but its introduction to the country was somewhat of an eye-opener.

The unit’s first all-ranks living quarters in Doha outside the capital city of Kuwait was a massive, abandoned warehouse that lacked lights, running water, air conditioning and free-flowing toilets. Personnel used a great deal of ingenuity to transform this cattle barn into comfortable living quarters.

My unit, 2 CER from Petawawa, Ont., was the second group from Petawawa to deploy to Kuwait. We left in September 1992 as 29 Field Squadron, a group comprised of 55 engineers and other skilled trades persons who would support UNIKOM in a variety of ways. As our predecessors had done so marvellously before us, we would continue the proud traditions of the engineers throughout the mission. Clearly, it was a time for 29 Field Sqdn. to shine, and as the squadron’s sergeant major, I was in charge of maintaining discipline of the personnel and the provision of administration. I also acted as welfare officer.

Our unit’s arrival at the Kuwait airport on Sept. 26 was an experience in itself. Peering through the windows of the plane we could see the charred remains of a few passenger jets. The planes were still on the tarmac and we got a better look at them when we disembarked from our Hercules transport. Later, while participating in a handover ceremony on the tarmac with the departing field squadron, we were introduced to the country’s boiling temperatures. It was almost 9 p.m., but the temperature was still 39 degrees Celsius. What would the daytime temperatures be like?

Our permanent camp was located approximately 75 kilometres north of Kuwait City, near the Iraqi border town of Umm Qsar. The town was on the edge of the demilitarized zone, and what we saw the next day shocked us. It was like living in biblical times. Although the town was actually an Iraqi village, part of it was a former Iraqi military camp that had been deserted during the war.

As I became more familiar with the standards of living on each side of the border, I was enlightened and at times bothered by the differences. Over thousands of years, the original descendants of the monarchy in Kuwait had evolved and prospered. Oil had made them very rich, and this wealth helped transform their social structure, one that included a large number of Third World immigrants who worked in Kuwait for very small wages. Oddly, I found the Iraqi people poor and simple by comparison to the people living in Kuwait City. I was also impressed by how friendly and considerate the Iraqi villagers were.

Those living near us shared what they had, which wasn’t much. They lived in mud-stucco buildings with no windows or floor coverings, and their children dressed sparingly, usually with no shoes. And even as the children frolicked and played in the sand dunes, their smiles remained bright and sparkling and their laughter crisp and refreshing. It became a custom to secretly bring these kids chocolates and other candies whenever we drove the short distance to UNIKOM headquarters at Umm Qsar. Often, the children would run beside our vehicle screaming some unintelligible rant, but we always gave them something. It was our secret.

We shared the camp with soldiers from several other countries that were participating in the UN mission. All members, regardless of what nation they were from, actively supported the mission’s objectives. The Danish contingent, for example, supervised vehicle maintenance and provided the drivers throughout the tour.

The camp itself was a pretty comfortable place. It had many of the amenities you’d find at home. There was also a maintenance hangar, motor pool, weight training building, ammunition/explosive compound and a rather large aircraft hangar that supported the helicopter unit.

Our home within the camp was a large air-conditioned building with several key features, including a mess where all ranks could let off steam, discuss politics, religion or sex. It was also used for entertainment purposes. Other members of UNIKOM would frequent the mess often, and the Canadians earned the reputation of having the best barbecues. Our Saturday night steak dinners would be frequented by members of the Kuwaiti military from the capital or from other places farther afield. Perhaps it was the beer and the prices.

Beer in a Muslim country? We could thank the ingenious preparations and support we received from our comrades in Lahr, Germany. Beer, being a Canadian staple, was sent to Kuwait via Hercules aircraft. It would arrive on a large pallet completely wrapped in brown paper. The Herc would land and then park on the tarmac several hundred metres from the prying eyes of the Kuwaiti military and police. The deliveries always got through, and the arrival of the “beer truck” at the camp was very good for morale. I am positive that if Kuwaiti officials had found these delicacies, we would have been shipped back to Canada.

Food, especially Canadian food, is vital to the morale of the soldier. In fact, Canadian soldiers are known for the quantity and types of meals they eat while on exercise or deployed overseas. Our mess hall, which was within spitting distance of our accommodation, was a medium-sized building with an array of neatly bedecked tables and chairs. The chef was Pakistani and he was a “chicken” entrepreneur. He could prepare more types of chicken dinners and suppers than anyone in the Middle East. We ate chicken approximately 12 times a week, and the only way to get him to change the menu was through constant pleading. When we did get something different it was met with a loud cheer. Overall, the food was good and a constant reminder that Canadian food does have choices.

Our tour on the Iraq/Kuwait border involved a lot of hard work and long hours. Daily life in camp and at UNIKOM headquarters was busy. There were operations meetings, deployments to and working on various tasks, vehicle and equipment maintenance as well as our own personal maintenance and hygiene. The oppressive heat caused many of the soldiers to cut their hair very short. The barber, hired by the UN, was from a Third World country and he proved to be an excellent barber. His small shop was located just outside UNIKOM headquarters, and he lived in a nearby tent. He had been there since the Gulf War and had cut many heads.

Interestingly enough, his unique skill wasn’t cutting hair but his ability to render the subject useless. After his patent haircut, he would slowly massage the neck, head and shoulders of the customer. This would bring the client into a very relaxed state. And then without any warning the barber would wrench the neck of the client. The quick movement sounded painful, but it caused the customer to feel relaxed and refreshed, although several soldiers refused to have their necks and shoulders rubbed because of the deafening snap they heard coming from other people’s necks.

A typical day began very early with most soldiers already prepared to deploy out of town so to speak. Each week a different section of soldiers would deploy by vehicle to specific tasks almost anywhere in Kuwait. Tasks were received and operations orders were disseminated to the section commanders by the operations officer. Some sections would leave Monday morning and not return until Friday. If the sections were lucky and resourceful enough, they would spend their nights in an air-conditioned Point Observation Base, POB. These posts were located along the border to monitor Iraqi activities and report clandestine or unusual operations to UNIKOM headquarters.

The POBs were usually comprised of three large trailers dug into the ground. Each trailer was air-conditioned and had electricity and water. As temperatures frequently reached 52 degrees Celsius in the desert, these POBs were lifesavers.

Reconnaissance of Iraqi-occupied areas, anti-tank ditches, defensive positions, minefields and gun emplacements in Kuwait was a weekly affair. We scoured the desert for these types of positions not only for intellectual purposes but for task confirmation and safety reasons as well. There were also miles of minefields sewn in the desert, and hundreds of underground bunkers. These fortifications were very apparent near the Bubiyon Bridge located at the northeast corner of Kuwait. Thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition were left sprinkled at or near these fortifications.

During one of my several trips to these former Iraqi defensive positions I noticed several sheets of plywood lying on the ground. The wood was slightly covered by sand and clothing and as I lifted one sheet I came face to face with two black scorpions. As I am allergic to bees and other assorted stinging insects, meeting the two creatures did not please me at all. During the remaining inspection tours of Iraqi sites, I would always delicately move any equipment or supplies so as not to risk being stung.

Our work did not end on weekends, either. Saturdays were used to maintain all equipment, weapons and vehicles used the previous week. This kept the soldiers active and that was good for morale. Keeping busy on work-related issues kept soldiers minds off their loneliness, and as their welfare officer I was responsible for their well-being. One of my primary duties was that of unit travel co-ordinator. In this function I would allocate vacation dates and seek the best and most economical method of travel. This was usually by aircraft.

Our government had generously provided a villa in Bahrain for the Canadian contingent. The four-bedroom villa, which had 10 beds and two washrooms, was rented from a rich Bahrainian Arab.

During our tour we were also entitled to visit Kuwait City for some rest and relaxation. The Kuwaiti Towers–one of the city’s most impressive features–was not damaged during the war and so many of us took the time to visit it. However, many other key sites were either damaged or destroyed by the Iraqi military. Among the ruins was a full-scale ocean liner in dry dock. It had been completely torched.

The last major task we received from UNIKOM headquarters was to install concrete border markers along the breadth of the Iraq/Kuwait border. A Global Positioning System had sited each new border marker, and the previous engineer squadron had cleared routes to each site. This had involved mine clearing and dealing with any other unexploded ordnance. A Swedish company was contracted to conduct the final GPS positioning of each border marker, and it was remarkable how accurate the GPS positioning became. Each marker, which included a concrete base and a concrete tier, weighed approximately 12 tons.

More than 100 markers were installed along the border, and each one was accurate within one centimetre using the GPS. It was a monumental undertaking, but was achieved with hard work and dedication. An actual border now exists, and each marker has two brass plates identifying the country on either side.

The soldiers of 29 Field Sqdn. rendered remarkable support to the UN and brought great credit to Canada and its armed forces. Our tour ended in April 1993.


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