In 2019 from Lviv airport, a Ukrainian Air Forces Ilyishin II-76 airlift carried 150 men for a 6-month deployment. They joined the 250-man 18th Helicopter Detachment, a Ukrainian aviation unit within the UN’s 20,000-strong peacekeeping mission to Congo.
There, the Ukrainian soldiers operate four Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters and four Mil Mi-8 transporters. Despite fighting a war on its own territory, Ukraine continues to send helicopter pilots and technicians to missions similar to the one in Congo, understanding the struggle of the people there.
The city of Goma, where the pilots were stationed, is a city of 2 million people that borders Rwanda. It is plagued by continuing armed conflict, epidemics, and endemic poverty. The Great African War, ending in 2003, did not leave the land free of violence. Each day, the Congolese government army and over 160 armed groups, totalling 20,000 fighters, battle over the control of the Eastern Congo’s rich deposits of gold and cobalt – materials that are sold abroad for immense profits.
In retaliation to the Congolese army’s operations fighters from the rebel armed groups conduct raids on towns. They often rape and abduct people from local villages, forcing young girls into sex slavery and boys into the ranks of child soldiers. Many more children are also enslaved and forced to work 48-hour shifts at illegal mining sites.
Most of the recent attacks have been committed by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – an Islamist group tied to the Islamic State.
When the Ukrainian troops get to Goma, they are tasked with bringing Indian and Moroccan troops to flights in Goma to take them home, transporting UN medics to the sick in distant villages, protecting South African helicopters flying through danger zones above rainforest areas controlled by the rebels and recovering the wounded from the conflict zones.
The Ukrainians are not the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUSCO’s, only helicopter force. However, it is the one to take on the riskiest of missions that other troops usually decline.
After an attack on the UN base on the banks of the Semulike River in Norther Kivu on November 12th, the Ukrainian Mil Mi-24 attack helicopter fired missiles at the rebels, forcing them to withdraw.
Just a day before that, the Ukrainian troops received a distress call informing them that a Pakistani peacekeeper, Sergent Ubiad Ullah was in critical condition from malaria in a Salamabela outpost. Realizing that he needed immediate evacuation, a Ukrainian helicopter took on the mission even though there were only a few hours of daylight left, and the aircraft would have to fly through inclement weather and perform a night landing at a site utterly unprepared for it.
Just under an hour after the call, Mil Mi-8 was in the air. The area was full of extreme cloud cover, and the pilots had to be immensely careful gaining altitude near Goma. At 1,500 meters, the air is much thinner, which poses more danger. Plus, in the highland, there is a higher risk of slamming into a mountain.
Despite all odds, the pilots made it to the Salamabela outpost and managed to rush back, flying blind through the night, back to Goma.
According to Kyiv Post, in 2019 alone, Ukrainian crews spent over 3,800 hours the air and transported 12,300 passengers and over 850 tons of UN cargo.
Due to their success, MONUSCO is requesting that Kyiv deploy two additional Mil Mi-8 helicopters equipped for combat missions.
All photos are by Volodymyr Petrov.