Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Today, there are no soldiers in Congo. Today, they are jokers."

This is how a Congolese WWII veteran describes his country's forces today. The quote is from a Washington Post story from yesterday about a camp for Congolese WWII veterans in Eastern Congo.

The story describes how they were "recruited" and served in the war. They weren't really recruited at all of course, more kidnapped and made to fight for Belgium (does that sound familiar?).

The story raises the question of how you support veterans in countries like Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and of course Afghanistan. Figuring out what an adequate pension looks like has been a challenge and a source of tension in these countries. In many cases, ex-combatants found to lack the qualifications to integrate new forces have refused to demobilize until they were assured sufficient pensions to support themselves and their families.

Still, I was surprised that these veterans were apparently paid pensions until the fall of Mobutu:

The men returned to eastern Congo after the war. Tami [one of the veterans] became a nurse; Ngumbi became a farmer. During the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who wrecked the economy but also instilled a sense of national and African pride, the men said they received a decent pension.

When Mobutu was overthrown in a coup, though, the pensions stopped. These days, the veterans get by on food and help from relatives.

War has swept a few times through Walikale, with a succession of rebel groups and recently the Congolese army -- now known as one of the worst-trained armies on the planet -- looting the veterans' camp. The soldiers stole the men's boots, their uniforms, their Congolese flag, and most of their medals.

And the story ends with the title quote.


  1. And as you know, this isn't just an African problem. Russia is going through a major defense reform effort, and as it turns out, associated financial constraints have required Moscow to abandon promises made to senior officers about pensions and guaranteed apartments upon retirement.

    This is an even bigger problem when you consider that one of the major thrusts of the reform effort is the elimination of hollow, officer-only units that were meant to be filled with reservists and draftees when the ball dropped. So now you have a whole bunch of colonels that you don't need, and they happened to be the guys that you promised a bunch of benefits (which you now can't afford).

    As one of my history professors noted on the first day of a class on 19th-century Russia, "what you're going to figure out over the course of this class is that pretty much Russia sucks."

  2. Is there academic literature on this topic, i.e. dealing with what happened to these types of soldiers from WWII?

  3. Scott-I couldn't find academic work but then I didn't look all that much. I also stuck with France because I'm from there and it makes searching easier. I did a quick search for Belgian forces but kept getting linked back to the French.

    All this to say, on French veterans, here's what I found with a quick search on Le Google. This blog/site (in French but if you scroll to the bottom explains that that while pensions for French WWII vets were indexed to inflation in 1959, for non-French citizens, those pensions were simply frozen. In 2001, a Senegalese NCO filed suit and won. In 2004, the law was changed and starting in 2007, the pensions were partially unfrozen (in French the term was "cristallisation" it's a nice euphemism, n'est ce pas?).

    They are now indexed to achieve purchasing power parity in the veteran's country of residence. This apparently affects about 80,000 veterans. Of course, the veterans aren't getting back what they didn't get between 1959 and 2004. Not only that, but that's still a lot less than the French WWII vets who live in France get in Euros. In fact, French WWII vets get 600 Euros per month, Senegalese 150 and Moroccans about 80. A great number of the troops participated in the landing in Provence.

    Finally, you might also want to check out this film, Indigenes, which tells the story of four north Africans who fought for France in WWII. I haven't seen it yet but I watched a trailer and it looks really good. It created such a public outcry that it pushed French authorities to take more steps to help these veterans.