2018/08/23 – Concerns about potential delays in the approval of life-saving medical evacuations are circling around Canada’s United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, which in recent days conducted its first two operations in the war-torn West African nation.
Both operations involved ferrying Dutch reconnaissance teams to different parts of the sparsely populated countryside around the northern city of Gao, where the Canadians and Dutch peacekeeping contingents are based, said Canadian commander Col. Chris McKenna.
“We landed near the village, they (the Dutch) walked in and obviously there was some engagement with the locals, they projected that UN presence out into the countryside a bit and then we picked them up at the end of the day and we brought them home,” McKenna said.
The support flights marked the first planned missions since the Canadian force, which includes eight helicopters and 250 aircrew and soldiers, took over from a combined German and Belgian helicopter contingent at the beginning of July and became fully operational last week.
Yet while the two flights appear to have gone went off without a hitch, there are fears the same won’t be said when it comes to the real reason the Canadians are in Mali: to evacuate and provide emergency medical assistance to peacekeepers wounded or injured in the field.
Those fears are based on complaints made by frustrated German aircrew before they were relieved by the Canadians. The Germans said they were forced to struggle with delays in getting approval for medical evacuations due to patchy communications and UN officials wrangling over cost.
Some of those delays lasted hours, the Germans told The Canadian Press during a visit to Gao in June – time that could mean the difference between life and death for injured peacekeepers in Mali’s harsh environment and barren landscape.
“It’s one of the things that concerns me based on what we got from the Germans as well,” McKenna acknowledged during a telephone interview from Mali.
When a UN convoy or patrol is attacked, the request for help must follow a chain that runs from the unit commander on the ground through various other commanders and back to the UN headquarters in Bamako.
While that alone can take a long time, given dodgy communication networks and the vagaries of the UN command system, military and civilian officials must then meet to discuss whether to send a military or civilian helicopter.
That discussion can also take time – in part, the Germans said, because one of the key factors is money, requiring various calculations to determine the most cost-effective option.
The UN has faced more scrutiny than ever before to account for its spending because of past corruption as well as shrinking budgets, particularly as the U.S. has cut its funding for peacekeeping.
McKenna said he has contacted various UN commanders and officials around the country and that Canada plans to place several officers at the UN mission headquarters in Bamako to speed the flow of information and decision-making in an emergency.
“I’ve engaged the sector commander and the force commander on ways we can help to make this smoother,” he said.
“I don’t have a data point here to tell you how that’s going based on the fact we haven’t been launched on a medevac task yet, but it is a concern of mine and we’re doing everything we can to mitigate it here.”
Mali has been riven by conflict and strife since a rebellion in the north and a coup in the capital in 2012 threw the country into turmoil, which has been exacerbated in recent years by poverty, drought and an influx of Islamic jihadists.