In the skies over Mali, Canadian Chinook helicopters have been transformed into flying emergency rooms to rescue the wounded, as armed extremists carry weapons over porous borders.
“It’s a country the size of Ontario and it’s a poor country, so it doesn’t have incredible resources of its own in order to secure its own borders,” said Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia, the chief of staff of operations for the Canadian Forces peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Earlier this year, the Canadian government announced that it would be deploying 20 civilian police officers, eight helicopters and approximately 250 military personnel to support the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the war-torn West African country.
The announcement made good on the Liberal government’s repeated promises to ramp up Canada’s contributions to UN missions, and marks one of the country’s first major peacekeeping operations on the continent since Canadians donned blue helmets in Rwanda and Somalia more than two decades ago.
CTV’s Omar Sachedina was on board a Chinook helicopter for a medical evacuation simulation. This kind of helicopter deployment is a first for Canada in a hostile environment.
Each Chinook is escorted by two Griffon helicopters, which look out for threats from the ground below. As soon as the Chinook lands, soldiers secure the area, scoping out danger while a medical team races to treat any victims.
“If a Chinook shows up to pick you up and you’ve been hurt, you’re quite lucky,” said Col. Chris McKenna, the Canadian Task Force Commander in Mali. “It’s about the best healthcare you’re going to get here. You’re essentially walking into a Canadian emergency room.”
All of this is done in 40 degree Celsius heat and while wearing 120 pounds of protective gear.
“You feel like basically a pet trapped in a car,” said Lt. Col. Leilani Doyle, a physician who has done four tours of Afghanistan and one in Bosnia. “It’s a terrible feeling and at the beginning of the tour, a lot of us really did not feel well, though we’ve gotten used to the heat somewhat.”
When the Chinooks are not responding to emergencies, they transport peacekeepers from other countries on the UN mission, such as the Netherlands and Germany, to areas outside of the base camp for reconnaissance missions and local community outreach.
“When you have good contacts with village elders over there, you also get, for example, a phone call saying, ‘Here are guys we don’t know. Maybe have a look (at them),’” said Lt. Col. Michael Weckbach, a German peacekeeper.
Unlike the Dutch and the Germans, Canada has no boots on the ground. Canada’s mission in Mali is expected to last 12 months.
Since the Canadian contingent became fully operational, the Chinooks have performed two medical evacuations. This number is expected to increase as the dry season begins, making roads more passable and making it easier for insurgents to carry out attacks.
The mission in Mali is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Since it began in 2013, a total of 173 peacekeepers have died.