WHEN German Sgt. Andreas Halbeck said goodbye to his family, "naturally, a few tears flowed." But as part of the first contingent of 1,700 German troops deployed to Somalia yesterday, Sergeant Halbeck says he is "going down there with positive feelings."
His attitude does not mirror German public opinion as a whole.
Germany's first major troop deployment outside NATO since World War II, the Somalia venture is unsettling for many here. Intensified fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, has made Germans even less enthusiastic. According to an opinion poll published by the Forsa Institute July 11, two-thirds of Germans think the Bundeswehr, or Army, should not be sent.
At the beginning of the week, it looked as if the deployment might be postponed. Heavyweight politicians in the government coalition sided with the opposition, and argued that the rising death toll of United Nations soldiers in Somalia had changed the nature of the UN mission from a humanitarian to a military one. Sending German troops into a combat situation would violate the Constitution, they argued.
But on Tuesday, buttressed by the recent Constitutional Court approval of the deployment, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Cabinet voted unanimously to send the troops. The first 250 troops left from the Cologne military airport yesterday. Three other contingents are to leave over the next three weeks.
Germany has been under considerable pressure from its allies and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to contribute manpower to worldwide peacekeeping efforts. Pulling out would not only let down the international community, argue those who support of the deployment, but it would also be a blow to Army morale. Since the end of the cold war, German soldiers have been wondering what purpose they serve.
Defense Minister Volker Ruhe said the UN mission is still a humanitarian one, and pulling out now would be irresponsible.
Morale appeared to be high among the soldiers awaiting departure at dawn yesterday. Like Halbeck, most of the soldiers were there because they had volunteered. "There's no uncertainty" among the troops, said Halbeck, sporting a brand new UN baby-blue beret. "We're convinced we're going to do the job we've been prepared to do."
That job is to provide logistical support to UN troops and Somalis in Belet Uen, a relatively calm area about 180 miles north of Mogadishu. This includes setting up a water purification system and field hospital for UN troops and Somalis, as well as distributing humanitarian goods.
But the mission, Defense Minister Ruhe said in a send-off speech to the troops yesterday, "is not without danger, especially in Mogadishu." Before traveling to Belet Uen, the troops must go to Mogadishu. They will be quartered at the airport, which has often come under attack by supporters of Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed.