Indian peacekeepers’ gallant fightback from death in Sierra Leone

The sheer honesty of the varied emotions and the gripping story make this book a page-turner

M.R. Narayan Swamy Oct 29, 2021
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Operation Khukri: The True Story Behind the Indian Army’s Most Successful Mission as Part of The UN; Authors Major General Rajpal Punia and Damini Punia

When some UN peacekeepers began to forcibly disarm the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, the Indian contingent became an unfortunate casualty. The rebels changed the rules of the game and made it clear to the 233 Indian blue-helmeted soldiers to give up their weapons like the others if they valued their lives. After weeks of diplomacy failed to end the impasse, the Indians did the unthinkable – they fought their way out through RUF strongholds losing just one man in the daring “Operation Khukri”. This book is a true and moving account of the soldiers’ unmatched bravery.

Once a British colony like India, Sierra Leone had been battered by years of civil war that left some 50,000 people dead and more than one million displaced. When it got independence in 1961, the diamond-rich West African country’s currency – leone - equaled one US dollar. Decades of corruption and poor governance had by 1999 made one dollar fetch 3,000 leones!

The RUF was formed by an army officer to overhaul the system and quickly won mass support. But once it got into diamond smuggling, it began inflicting monstrosities on a helpless population. Even its fighters were not spared. Punishment included cutting the left arm in half or chopping off the wrist or death. This is when the UN intervened.

The Indian contingent led by Major General Rajpal Punia was deployed first at Lungi, in the west, and then at the other end in the RUF hub Kailahun. Some areas the Indians went into were submerged in poverty, with people dying of starvation and plague. Buildings looked crumbled with bullet holes and craters. Most places lacked electricity and potable water.

The Indian soldiers provided people with food and medical support and involved them in outdoor games. Humanitarian assistance was not their mandate but the Indians felt they must act as humans too. All this earned them local sympathy besides intelligence about the RUF. A few guerrillas surrendered to the Indians.

Indian peacekeepers’ stubborn refusal

This is when the Kenyan peacekeepers tried to forcibly disarm the RUF, triggering clashes that left several guerrillas dead. Once the RUF turned against the UN, all other peacekeepers surrendered their weapons and uniform. The RUF told the Indians to surrender too. When the Indians refused, Punia and another officer were taken hostage by the RUF. He made it clear that come what may the Indians won’t give up their weapons or surrender. They will be ready to die instead.

Even as the issue triggered a storm in India, with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaking to his counterpart in Liberia, the RUF laid siege to the Indian UN team and UN military observers from some other countries.

Days dragged into weeks and weeks turned into months. Tension built up, with a handful of Indian soldiers wondering if it was not a better idea to emulate the other UN peacekeepers – give up your weapons and leave the damn place. Punia, who had been released along with his colleague, would have none of it. He kept meeting RUF’s Colonel Martin and the respected Kailahun chief, Papa Giema, who was distressed over RUF’s conduct.

Punia tried to end the siege by talking to the RUF leadership but the group insisted on surrender. The Indians then decided to fight it out.

The heroic fightback

Stealthily, under the cover of darkness, they moved over en masse from a disused hospital building in which they were camping to the high ground about a kilometer away which was strategically better located. Bunkers were dug. With depleting food stocks, the soldiers began having just one meal a day.

Meantime, the RUF released, on Punia’s request, an Indian Army officer and 21 soldiers held captive in another town. Anger gripped Punia when he realized that the officer and the soldiers had been beaten up. He decided to teach the RUF a lesson.

Just before dawn on July 15, 2000, after more than 75 days of being prisoners in a faraway land, a British Chinook helicopter by previous arrangement landed near the Indian camp and took off quickly with the UN military observers. One of them, a Pakistani officer, hugged Punia before leaving for saving his life. “He stated that he would always respect the Indian Army for its professionalism.”

Immediately after, the Indians went on the offensive, destroying a building where the RUF had stored the bulk of its weapons. The RUF radio room and check post were also blown up. Then the Indians began a death-defying over 70-kilometer trek through dense thickets, with the RUF giving chase. A few soldiers suffered splinter injuries but no one was seriously hurt.

But even as another Indian Army unit was airdropped for support on the way, a RUF rocked killed Havildar Krishan Kumar, who surprisingly had told Punia in Delhi that he was unlikely to return home alive. The chasing guerrillas were held on the back foot by the soldiers resorting to a fire-and-move approach. When the Indians made it to safety, everyone realized the RUF had suffered its first military debacle, that too in its supposed stronghold.

Lookback

History had been made but memories of Colonel Martin, Papa Giema and a Sierra Leone woman known as Sister kept haunting Punia. The three had become friends in Kailahun. Were they killed in the Indian attack?

“I wish I were less of a soldier and more of a brother, a friend, a confidant, or just more of a human,” the General felt. Kailahun was a story of raw courage and regret – over lives that need not have been lost. For 17 long years, normal sleep eluded Punia.

The sheer honesty of the varied emotions and the gripping story make this book a page-turner. Every Indian must read it. The UN must make it compulsory reading for all its peacekeepers.

(Operation Khukri: The True Story Behind the Indian Army’s Most Successful Mission as Part of The UN; Authors Major General Rajpal Punia and Damini Punia: Publishers Press/Penguin Random House; Pages 201; Price Rs 399)

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist, author and South Asia analyst)