Extreme heat, heavy rains, pirates, ambushes and a car accident. The two Dutch ex-soldiers were spared little when repairing bombed bridges in war-torn Sudan. The last project, the construction of a 33-meter army bridge, was almost ‘a bridge too far’. “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong”.
“Put your hands out of your pockets and help us!” Harrie Brekelmans shouts in a mix of English and Dutch to a few Sudanese boys. They stand with their hands in the pockets watching the veteran try to repair a damaged bridge. Overloaded trucks have made deep holes in the deck of the bridge and cars with their wheels regularly sink through the road. The sun burns mercilessly over the African savannah. Although the afternoon is already coming to an end, it is still above fifty degrees. “It’s your bridge, not mine!” The veteran shouts angrily. After the exhortation there is finally movement in the group of Sudanese. The broken-down deck beams are put back in place with united forces. Yet this is only a foretaste, because the real challenge lies in a settlement further down the road, some forty kilometers north of the southern Sudanese capital of Juba. Harrie Brekelmans (58) from Bokhoven and Henk Schuurs (59) from Boxtel, veterans of the Enjoyment Regiment, are going to build a 33-meter-long bridge there. They have been building fifteen bridges since 1999, but this is the first project where they themselves are responsible for logistics issues such as transport. The bridge, dating from 1944, is a gift from the Ministry of Defense and is intended to ensure that the transport of people and goods can also continue during the rainy season. But no matter how much the former soldiers want to take action, the trucks with the parts of the bridge are without a trace. The last message is that they are 400 kilometers away on the border with Kenya.
The former soldiers are not happy from the start. Pirates off the coast of Somalia have foreseen it on the ship that also holds the two Dutch containers. The captain thinks the threat is too great and turns around to Jeddah, a port in Saudi Arabia. There the containers are transferred to a small ship. With a delay of two weeks, the ship finally arrives in Mombasa in mid-October. In the meantime, the financial crisis has spread around the world. Due to the weakening of the euro compared to the dollar, a budget gap of 11000 dollars (about 8000 euros) suddenly appears in the project budget. Veterans must pay the costs of the rise in fuel prices, import duties and the use of armed convoys.
“Two years ago, Sudan was still urgent. The war in the province of Darfur was engraved in everyone’s memory. Due to the financial crisis, the money for reconstruction has evaporated overnight. Machines are standing still and people are fired, “says Schuurs.
Only after Brekelmans himself started to take a look at the port of Mombasa did the case get shot. The 33-tonne containers are loaded on two trucks. “A day or four, then they are there,” the transporter estimates. This appears to be over optimistic for a week or two. Delays at the border, a broken suspension, a broken gearbox and a series of broken tires are still among the normal obstacles. It only gets really fierce when the convoy drives into an ambush of an armed gang. One of the Kenyan drivers is shot dead, after which the severely shocked drivers refuse to drive one more meter. Only when an armed escort has been arranged, does the convoy move again. The setbacks and changing schedules do not put the veterans in a hurry. Schuurs: “As soldiers, we are used to dealing with unexpected circumstances. We are dependent on each other and we come up with a solution for every problem ”.
The journey to the place of destination is quite an undertaking. From Nairobi we fly towards the Sudan border. Accompanied by the Kenyan army it goes through a piece of no man’s land by car. A few years ago, the bridge builders were attacked here by the Turkana tribe. Now it stays quiet. For two days we follow a wide sand and gravel path across the dry and hot African plains. Some parts are so bad that we can only drive at walking pace. We pass countless minefields, broken-down vehicles, army camps and settlements with wooden huts. Children with bow and arrow guard a herd of goats and women drag heavy stacks of firewood on their heads. We spend the night in a British camp from which landmines are cleared. We also come across several bridges that the veterans have built since 1999. There is always an inspection that shows that there is a lot of lack of maintenance on the bridges. The idea of veterans to set up a bridging school where Sudanese are educated has not caught on with the government.
Almost a week after we leave the Netherlands, we reach Juba, the poor, filthy capital of southern Sudan. Just outside the city is a camp of the German aid organization GTZ. Commissioned by the United Nations and the World Food Program, this organization is constructing roads and dikes. Here the ex-geniuses camp in a pale green army tent, which stands in groups of three under the sparse trees. We share the tent with mosquitoes a frog, a toad and a walking branch. In contrast to the daytime, it is cold at night. “Sudan has a harsh desert climate. The rain and heat are our worst enemy, “says Henk Schuurs. “In the rainy season the roads turn into mud pools and the land is impassable, while in the dry season women sometimes have to walk miles with jugs of water on their heads”.
Two days later the bridge builders are guests at the Dutch embassy in Juba. Ambassador Norbert Braakhuis listens to the stories on a terrace on the Nile. “Great job. The veterans jump into the gap that international aid organizations leave behind. They are not designed for a country in transition from war to peace. Moreover, the work is immediately visible to the people in Sudan ”. The fact that the former soldiers pay for a large part of the costs and even have to pay their own airline ticket goes too far for him. “We will have to find a solution for that, otherwise no veteran will of course do this work”. The bridge builders are also firm: “If we had foreseen this, we would never have started the” veterans with a mission “pilot project. In addition to the financial offerings, the veterans are also away from home for weeks. Harrie Brekelmans: “You can only do this work if the home front is 100 percent behind you. They are not completed projects for a week or two.
Four weeks later than planned, the containers with the parts of the bridge arrive. Construction starts immediately at 6 a.m. Schuurs and Brekelmans receive help from a platoon of soldiers and are clearly looking forward to it. “We are finally building! The preparations took up 95 percent of the time. Compared to this, the construction of the bridge is just a piece of cake. This is for our routine work, “says Brekelmans.
Just as everything seems to be going well, the two former soldiers are involved in a car accident. The car of the veterans collides with another car that suddenly hits the road. In no time they are surrounded by a crowd of angry Sudanese. “I just thought it was over. There were more than a hundred people around us with fire-breathing eyes. Everything that is dear to me flashed past me, ”says a startled Schuurs. Only when a tribal elder, with the help of soldiers, intervenes, will peace return and the work can be continued. The panels are assembled on the side and ready within days. A shovel pulls the colossus over the water to the right place and brings sand for the entrances and exits.
At the official opening, the military attaché leaves without notice, a disappointment for the veterans. Schuurs: “It is important that defense supports our work. Not only with equipment, but also with permits and contacts with local authorities, for example. Moreover, the defense must plan the projects more tightly and have an eye for financial setbacks. These are hard conditions to make the “veterans with a mission” project a success. ” The Sudanese villagers soon discovered the bridge. “In the past cars drove here and waded women through the water to their waist. Now they can walk on like this. That’s what we ultimately do it for, “the veterans conclude with satisfaction.
- The Ministry of Defense, in collaboration with the Veterans Institute and the National Commission for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development, has set up the “veterans with a mission” project.
- The intention is to deploy former soldiers for humanitarian missions in former deployment areas.
- Veterans from Brabant Henk Schuurs and Harrie Brekelmans are conducting a pilot project to gain experience for the “veterans with a mission” project.
- The project consists of the construction of an army bridge in southern Sudan.
- Since 1999, the veterans have been building sixteen bridges and four have been restored.
- The veterans are now arranging the logistics themselves for the first time. Previously, it ran through the diocese of Torit, a city in southern Sudan.
- The Ministry of Defense donates the 33-meter long bailey (army) bridge. The National Commission for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development pays for the transport of the material to Sudan.
- There are also ongoing projects in Bosnia, Korea, Cambodia and Iraq.
“Building bridges is in our blood”
They have now built hundreds of bridges. In conflict areas such as Bosnia and Lebanon, but also at Dutch events such as Sail-Amsterdam. Building bridges is in the blood of Harrie Brekelmans (58) from Bokhoven and Henk Schuurs (59) from Boxtel. The two geniuses met in the early 1970s at the Navobasis in Seedorf, Germany. As a soldier, Brekelmans was stationed in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Lebanon and Mozambique. The old genist seems to be addicted to building bridges. Last year he spent nine months in Africa building bridges. “This is what we are good at. I have always loved pioneering and improvising. Here I can lose my egg. When I am back in the Netherlands, it sometimes starts to itch again after two days, “he explains his passion. At the beginning of January the next bridge is already planned. Henk Schuurs shares the passion of his colleague. As an instructor at the bridging school, he trained many geniuses. He was active in Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia. “It would be good if the South Sudanese army founded a genius company. We can guide this during the first few years. Ultimately, the Sudanese must do it themselves. ”