Czech soldiers serving in high risk missions abroad tell their story

31-05-2003

Recently the Czech Defense Ministry organized a get together for all Czech war veterans and soldiers serving in high risk missions around the world. More than 200 people filled the assembly hall - from Czechoslovak pilots who flew with the RAF in the Second World War to soldiers who had served in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Kosovo. Each had a story to tell - of treating malaria, of being abducted or getting caught in cross fire.

Today the Czech Republic has soldiers in many parts of the world. Lieutenant colonel Sornas has served in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Congo. He explains that accepting danger as a way of life is part of the job.

"You can lose your life in any mission. Especially a mission where you are alone, like military observers. They are really alone, without support from a military unit, sometimes without a weapon and they are at the center of the fighting. And the locals always think that you side with the enemy -that you support "the others" - but that is not true because we are there as independent international forces who support only peace.'

What do you do to overcome these problems?

"You see dead bodies. You may feel that everything is against you. You are without your family. You are without your friends. Actually you do have friends - the others, the internationals who serve with you - but you must remember that you are out there to do a job. You have to work and not think that something could happen to you. Yes, something could happen to you. But that's part of the job. "

Colonel Jindrich Sitta has served in several foreign missions: he was with the Czech anti-chemical unit which took part in Operation Dessert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait. He says it was his most difficult mission ever, and not just because it was an entirely new experience. So what is his view on the Persian Gulf syndrome?

"There is no direct evidence as to what caused the Persian Gulf syndrome. But there were plenty of stress factors in play and we all have different levels of immunity to that. Physically and psychologically it was an enormous burden. Our bodies were thrown off balance, off "course," so to speak. We were driving ourselves almost beyond endurance and it is my belief that physically our bodies reacted to this by developing illnesses that might otherwise not have surfaced or might have surfaced much later. There are plenty of theories about the Persian Gulf syndrome and no one today would question the fact that many of the soldiers who were there really developed serious problems. But there is no direct evidence as to what caused them or that one particular factor was responsible. "

Colonel Sitta's most recent mission took him to Afghanistan where he served as head of the Czech field hospital in Kabul.

"The mission was complicated by a number of factors. Primarily the climate which we were unused to: day temperatures often reached seventy degrees Celsius in the sun, in the hospital tents it was between fifty and sixty degrees. There was a huge amount of dust in the air - infected dust which seriously complicated the treatment of open wounds and operations, and we were treating diseases unknown in our part of the world: typhus, cholera, malaria and so on. The security situation was also unstable. All foreign bases were attacked at some point - there were petty crimes - and there was often a security alert which meant a ban on leaving the premises. It was very hard to endure long term and the only thing which worked in our favour was that, by the time the doctors and nurses left their workplace, they were so exhausted that all they wanted to do was drop onto their beds and sleep and sleep."

Serving in a foreign mission in high risk conditions is exhausting but being in the middle of the action can also become addictive -so that "veterans" who are assigned to temporary office work on their return have serious withdrawal symptoms. Lieutenant colonel Jaroslav Kulisek who served as a UN military observer in Georgia was abducted by Georgian rebels five years ago and escaped after a week in detention. On his return the country's "most famous hostage" was feted by the nation and assigned to an important post at the defense ministry. He can't wait to get back into action. At the veterans meeting he told me he was impatiently awaiting orders - ready to go anywhere. Asked about his abduction, he gives a jovial account of the experience and plays down the danger.

"I was imprisoned for a week - the UN observers from Uruguay and Sweden were released before me, one by one. It was a bizarre experience. We were fed and shown to TV crews from around the world but there were times when there was a gun at my temple and things didn't look good. I attempted to reason with their chief but it was soon clear that he simply didn't have the authority to release us - someone else was making the decisions. "

During the week-long imprisonment the UN observers did not suffer from a lack of food. They were fed a staple diet of bread, bean-soup and local wine. After one particularly heavy drinking spree Kulisek used his army knife to break the lock on a small chained window and escaped into a corn field. For weeks after Czechs joked that the Georgians were no match for Kulisek when it came to drinking. Kulisek himself laughs it off, but says he keeps the army knife with him at all times. It has become a talisman.

"It was only when it was all over that I realized how serious things were and, yes, there were some side effects. I couldn't sleep, I lost my appetite and I drank a lot of water."

Two years later he was back in Georgia, and this time escaped death by the skin of his teeth when his vehicle was riddled with bullets on the road. That was a far more dangerous situation than the abduction, but everyone asks me about the former, Kulisek laughs.

So what about that "special relationship" between a jailer and his prisoner? Kulisek has a surprising story to tell about that. A few years after the abduction he received an invitation to attend the funeral of his abductor - the rebel ringleader. " No way," he thought, and didn't go. The funeral turned into a bloody incident in which several people were shot dead and dozens injured. No one knows for sure who started shooting at the funeral procession but unofficial sources claim it was the Georgian secret police.

My wife was a bit unnerved by things at the beginning but she's used to it now, Kulisek says, wondering where he will be sent next. Africa, preferably.

So, have there been any highlights in his life recently?

"What left a truly lasting impression on me was the veterans' pilgrimage to Lourdes last weekend. Soldiers from all over the world gathered together and it was a marvelous experience. Absolutely incredible. It was as if we all spoke one language despite the language barriers. I think it was one of the highlights of my life. "

31-05-2003