Vietnamese peacekeepers reveal reality of South Sudan conflict

By Hoang Phuong   March 26, 2017 | 11:19 pm PT
They recall their work in a country where 10-year-old boys know how to fire an AK.

Vietnamese soldiers who are part of the U.N. peacekeeping force in conflict-torn South Sudan spend days patrolling, negotiating and escorting UN aids in a country where everybody has guns.

Vietnam first sent military officers to join the United Nations humanitarian work in South Sudan in 2014, and has since dispatched 12 officers to U.N. missions in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Some of them shared their experience of their missions for the first time with VnExpress.

Senior Lieutenant Colonels Tran Nam Ngan and Mac Duc Trong were the first Vietnamese U.N. peacekeepers sent to South Sudan. This is a country where each citizen owns four guns on average, according to U.N. estimates, Ngan said.

“During our patrols, we often see guns standing in the corners of houses,” he told VnExpress. “Boys aged around 10 years old here already know how to use an AK,” Ngan said.


Arms and ammunition seized from residents in Bor. Supplied photos

The South Sudanese civil war, a conflict between the government and opposition forces, started in December 2013 when President Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar and ten others of plotting a coup. Machar denied the accusation and fled to lead an opposition force, and fighting broke out.

Millions of locals started to take up arms or fled to other countries.

At least 12 aid workers have been killed so far this year, raising the toll to 79 since 2013, according to a U.N. statement issued on Sunday.

Trong and Ngan arrived at Juba International Airport on a rainy day, and the city was flooded and covered in weeds.

“Everything was dreary. We had tried to imagine, but were still surprised,” said Ngan, 45.

The 240,000-square-mile country only has 60 kilometers of paved roads, while the rest are still dirt tracks and can become muddy during the monsoon season.

They received one-week training in Juba, staying in container-turned-rooms of more than 10 square meters.

Then Ngan was sent to Bor, 200 kilometers (124 miles) away, and Trong to Melut, home to four refugee camps with more than 150,000 people.


Tran Nam Ngan on duty in South Sudan. 

Their mission is to keep communications alive between the U.N. and political and military forces in the area. They are also tasked with regular patrols and escorting U.N. aids.

Some of their trips can take weeks and they are accompanied by guards if they have to enter risky zones.

Trong went on around 200 patrols covering more than 20,000 kilometers in a year. He was part of several urgent missions including one to evacuate nearly 200 U.N. aid workers during a Shiluk attack in Melut.

Both Trong and Ngan returned to Hanoi in 2015 after a year on duty.

Vietnam will widen its presence in the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces to fill in more positions and attend more operations in Africa this year and in 2018, the country's peacekeeping center has said.

Captain Nguyen Duc Thang, who was sent in July 2015 to replace Ngan in Bor, was most struck by a mission to escort seven U.N. ferries along the Nile River for 10 days.

The ferries had to pass inspection stations operated by both sides and at each, they had to stop around 50 meters away, or they would be shot.

“There were many gunshot holes in the ferries from previous trips,” Thang said.

“One year has given me an unforgettable experience. Sometimes danger makes us more courageous.”


Nguyen Duc Thang (front, left) and other UN liaison officers with the leader of an autonomous region (sitting) in South Sudan. 

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