"we have avenged him a hundredfold"
Letters and diaries from missions abroad can hold accounts and testimonies of events, described as heroic performances and a real “man’s job”. In the letters left to the Peace Archive by the Congo veteran Lars Frost (born in 1939), there are several sections reflecting brave acts as well as one's ambivalence while doing his duty and at the same time missing the safety in his homeland. Maybe it’s nothing more than glimpses of pure humanity revealing itself among the accounts of everyday tasks and sentry service. Maybe it’s us, as readers and onlookers, finding true comfort in that even the darkest areas and times still bring forth or uphold strains of humanity among soldiers and other dispatched persons.
The UN Congo operation between 1960-1964 lead to several combat situations, putting the Swedish soldiers in danger, directly and indirectly. On December 30, 1962, the Swedish and Ghanaian UN troops were ordered to capture the city of Kaminaville the following day, to disarm the Katanga Gendarmerie controlling the city. Corporal Björn Matsson describes the feeling when facing the action:
“If someone felt scared, the others didn’t notice. Afterwards most of them said that in general they were just curious that night and thought that now you’ll get to see something exciting. The equipment was put together carefully, and the weapons were given a last overhaul. No one got to bed before midnight and few slept calmly that night. The reveille was sounded 03.30 p.m. Extended breakfast in the dining hall. And then, away before dawn.”
Operation Kaminaville went well, without sustaining any losses on the UN side, and without unnecessary destruction. The beginning of the new year was celebrated by the Swedish Battalion in the largest military camp in Kaminaville, were Swedish herring and fresh pineapple was eaten. The camp was christened Camp Peace.
Back to Lars Frost - or Lasse, as he signs his letters - and his experiences from the peace-keeping and peace enforcing operations in the Congo, where he arrived at the age of 22. Frost participated as a private at Battalion XII (1961), XIV (1961–1962) and XX (1963). He also participated in Battalion 28 (1964) in Cyprus. Below follow three letters, written in Elisabethville (today's Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo) during the years 1961-1962, from Lasse to his mother. Camaraderie and the idea about having to “endure” emerges among the accounts of everyday tasks and a wish for his mother to send Matjes herring to the Congo.
the letters from FROST
The Eastern radio station
Hope all is well at home, I am fine, despite the hardships. We have been stationed here at the radio station for a couple of days and all has been calm. We are broadcasting propaganda daily from the station and wait for the Gendarme to attack us, so each night we lay in the trenches for 2-hour shifts, and during the days we have fixed reconnaissance from locations a way out in the bush. Yesterday afternoon, there were heated fighting in town and machine guns, grenade launchers, and recoilless rifles rumbled ceaselessly for several hours. This station is located a bit outside the town. I have been in the trench with Indians, fought with Gendarmes and know how it feels when the bullets start flying all around you.
Lindau from Klippan, who fell the on second day (the 14th), was a Dog Handler from my platoon. He and three others, with 10 grenades and a Grg (recoilless rifle), was to open fire at the Gendarmes’ supply in town. They had fired all shots (direct hits) and were going to leave the site. Lindau was last, and when one of the others turned around he saw Lindau on the ground. He thought Lindau had stumbled to a fall, but when he called out to him, Lindau didn’t move. He went there and looked at him, and what he saw was a hole just below the helmet, beside the eye where the brain was oozing out Lindau died right away. We miss him a lot, he was a funny bloke and a good comrade, but fortunately you get over it quickly, which you must do, to endure in this situation. We have avenged him a hundredfold.
Over the radio we heard that the Swedes here had panicked, you feel ashamed when you hear such lies. I believe we enjoy the greatest respect of all the units down here right now, so where that came from is a mystery, but it’s probably the Belgians, who don’t like us, who sent it out. We also heard that 30 Swedes had deserted, that is a lie as well. They were on vacation by the Indian Ocean when the war broke out, on the way back they got stuck in Rhodesia, the neighbouring country, the plane wasn’t allowed to continue, and that’s where that lie came from.
The Gendarmes took our food supply the other day, so the food has been a bit Spartan, but yesterday we took the food supply back, so now that is over and done with. The refugees are dying of starvation in masses, at least I have heard so, I haven't been to the camp for a week, and I don’t know the situation there. Right now, I hear the grenades whistle endlessly in town, all hell has broken loose there again.
A week before this began, I sent some drums made of wood, addressed to you, but it will probably take another month before it arrives, just so you know. If you find any newspaper clippings about the things down here, send them to me. Have you sent any Matjes herring?
Well, I won’t “stress” you any more with requirements. As I said, I like it fine down here, I’m managing all right. We haven't been on leave for month now, we’ve been at it, weekdays and Sundays. Here at the station, the sentry duty is 6 hours out of 24, not bad, but you must be on your toes and sleep with clothes and boots on and with the weapon by your side, but you do that gladly.
Tell Kennet and Jan Erik that I am glad l, while I was conscripted, learned how to dig trenches, crawl, and throw myself in the dirt, those who cannot do it here, when push comes to show, doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell to make it. I have much more to tell, but will save it until I come home, that will be more fun.
Many greetings to you all from Lasse!
P.S. As for the money you sent, I haven’t yet exchanged it, due to the situation, but it will be all right in time.
The letter mentions the soldier Lindau, who was killed in action on September 14, 1961. One example of intertwining human fates is that the Congo veteran Erik Lindholm, in his book about his experiences from Katanga, mentions a soldier with the nickname ‘Pucken’, who took care of the fallen Bengt Göran Lindau from Hyllstofta.
“Pucken could not go, he was still in shock. […], partly since today he happened to be close to Lindau, who was shot during combat at the Gendarmes’ supply. He was ordered to take care of Lindau and ran with Hoffman to get the dead body. Later they had to run to and fro with the stretcher and take cover behind the tombstones in the nearby graveyard, with bullets flying all around them. Pucken later said he never thought he would get out of there alive, he was shaken to the core when he came back to the camp again.”
Thank you very much for the parcels, I have already eaten a jar of Matjes herring. Today I ate it with boiled potatoes, it was awfully good. I hope you’ll do that again. I’m a bit mad about the photographer who destroyed 19 photos, among them some significant photos, which just I and 2 others from the whole Battalion could have taken, namely of the arrest of president Tshombe, those were the photos I was most eager to get. But you cannot do anything about it now, what photographer did you leave them with? Otherwise they were really good, and I will send you a couple of new rolls now as well.
In the letter I got the other day you asked me what you could send me. The only things I want is herring, Kalle’s caviar and coffee, we have everything else down here, and a lot is coming in to the Canteen now. Otherwise everything is as usual. I have signed a new contract, binding me here to 15-06-62, but the journey home will probably come before that, some time at the end of the month of May. If another reporter from some newspaper comes, you just know that I am well and like it rather well here, what I have been through is nothing to spread to the public, it's bad enough as it is without any paper making use of it. The public won't understand anyway and are better off without knowing.
Thank you once again for the herring and the shrimps and hope you all are well.
Kind and warm regards from Lasse.
P.S. It has been raining for 2 evenings, since I got here.
I thank you once again for the packages I got for Christmas and for your letter, which I received before Christmas as well. You wrote that I must sign the notice of tax assessment to get the money, but have you sent it here? It’s good that the TV was nice, I hope they’ll show nice programs too, so I’ll get a couple of calm evenings at home when I come back in the beginning of May.
In January it may be time to apply for the next battalion, but I don’t know if I will, it would be nice to stay at home for a while. But you can go home for a month and then go back again. The longer you stay, the more money you make. One guy at my company is doing his 5th in a row now, I calculate that he has earned around 50,000 kronor, not bad. It’s tax-free after one full year abroad. But I’ll see in a while, if it’s nice and calm, I’ll try, otherwise not.
I’ve had it rather good during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Today we have +35o in the shade and around +50o in the sun, quite good. There was no rain today.
Ronny has written to me and I will write him later. I haven’t heard from Kennet since this fall. He was going to send me a small bottle of schnapps, a ‘knatting’. It hasn't arrived yet. I don’t know if he sent it yet. But, no matter, we got one bottle of ‘Skåne’ schnapps for Christmas and one for New Years.
It is rumoured here that we soon will be moved to North Katanga, then it will be better. I don't know if that’s true. Otherwise, there aren’t much news. I’m appointed as a recoilless rifle marksman in a commando platoon that has been arranged at the battalion. It’s made up of the best soldiers in the battalion. We will get dangerous, but exciting work. So far, I’ve participated in all the most dangerous missions, so I know how to do things and that I can do it right.
Kind regards to you all.
P.S. Happy New Year.
INTERVIEW WITH FROST
Below follows an excerpt from an interview with Lars Frost, made in 2014 in connection to the documentary The Congo Veterans, by Marika Griehsel. The interview gives insight into the experiences Frost had during his time as a UN soldier in the Congo, and gives a supplementing perspective on the contents of the letters Frost wrote to his mother. The interviewer asks questions about the refugee camp where Frost served, and his memories of this.
Frost: Well, it was like this, the refugees started to arrive in August -61. But more and more came, and in the end, they were around 40,000.
[…] This camp was not harmless, there were different religions, different tribes, and many wanted to take the leadership, that's why it was a lot of fighting there. We had a lot of dramatic events when they, so to say, slaughtered each other, and suchlike. On a couple of occasions, I took part in gathering the dead and putting them on a tarpaulin, then the family could come and get them and bury them in the refugee graveyard we had organised there.
The interviewer goes on and asks about how the operations in the Congo are seen back home in Sweden.
Frost: […] It was never revealed how it really was, how it was for us, you know. I remember one time, at an emergency turnout. It was the emergency force, I belonged to the emergency force back then. We came out and these different groups were fighting there, on an open field where they used to play soccer, and they had machine-guns, and machetes, and everything. They had bike chains attached to clubs, that they whipped each other with. We would try to get those who had weapons and I remember that I saw one who had a machine-gun, I had a machine-gun too and ran in between the huts. There were children and women and everything and lots of people, but then I lost him and didn’t know where he went. Suddenly there was a bang behind my back. When I turned around he fell straight into a puddle, this man with the machine-gun. Another Swede had seen him aiming at me, so he shot him first. Then there was another of the Baluba men who came to me and showed me that he had gotten a slash from a machete in the head and had a big gaping wound. I had first aid bandages in my leg pocket. I said ‘sit’ and wound them around his head, by then I was maybe fifteen- twenty metres from the one laying in the puddle. Later, when I came back, they had cut off his hands and feet, poked his eyes out and behaved like crazy. And cut off the penis and everything. The puddle was filled with blood, and hens where pecking in it. Then, we were to gather all of that and put it on a tarpaulin. I mean, that wasn't something you could imagine when you came down, to experience such things or it wasn’t anything you talked about at home or wrote about, that's why it looked like we had something like a holiday down there. But it was the exact opposite.
How do you bear such experiences?
Frost: You must consider it carefully and be ready, before you get into such things. That such things can happen. Then you might, or at least maybe, I don’t know if you can examine yourself to see if you can overcome such strains. It's difficult, for sure. Most don’t know if that is something you can handle or not, it won't show until something happens to you. It is hard to give advice about it, but you should not, as I said before, if you have a family you shouldn’t go. Anyway, I don’t think that’s good.[…]
It is important to “prove yourself” when you are on a mission. What does it entail and are there some who couldn’t cope or got scared?
Frost: It means that if you're in a squad everyone must do their part, carry the weapons, ammunition, keeping watch, do surveillance, or something like that. It is important that everyone does what they should when they are on site. If you feel that you cannot cope, it might be hard to say it then, but you must, or else you are risking the lives of the others. That's how I see it, anyway. […] It was like this, some of those would couldn’t cope, felt that they couldn't cope and were showing the signs of not coping, they were sent to Leopoldville, 1,200 kilometres away, and were assigned to a parade guard. They went marching in the town there with a marching band and such, so they were far away from where things happened. You noticed in those who couldn’t cope that when they heard a shot being fired, they threw themselves down and they didn’t know what it was, even though it could be far away. They did get mental problems which they couldn’t handle and then they were sent away, when possible.
Talking about the experiences?
Frost: It’s obviously those who have been through things, like when I talk about the refugee camp, and such. You can talk with others, who have been through the same, but you cannot talk with relatives and friends and such. They cannot understand what it was like. I used to say that even if you read a book about refugee camps eight hours a day for twenty years, you still cannot perceive what it is like or what it was like, you had to be there. That’s how I know it. […]
Finally, the interviewer asks Frost how he wants to be remembered.
Frost: Yes, as I said, ‘He contributed to peace. May he rest in peace’, that’s how I want to see it. Peace is the only thing we need all over the world, to be able to build the society in a sensible way, I believe.
THE CONGO ENQUIRY
At his own initiative, Lars Frost made a questionnaire, The Congo Enquiry, UN Swedes in the Congo (1997). The questionnaire consists of 88 questions and were sent to 210 former UN soldiers where the squad leaders were the highest position, all whom had served in the Congo for at least 6 months between 1960-1964. Of the respondents, 156 answered, i.e. more than 74%. Frost himself writes that the selection should be representative, since 156 of the around 6,000 who served in the Congo, corresponds to 2,6%, which is a relatively high amount.
The enquiry raises several interesting issues, and the answers were given anonymously. Only a couple of the questions will be reproduced here.
One question is “Why did you apply for UN service?”, 117 (75%) answered that they were “Seeking excitement”. Other recurring answers were “To see the world”, “To contribute”, “To earn money”. Did the soldiers exchange letters with relatives and/or friends? 154 (99%) answered yes to the question. In the other questions it emerges that the demand for information about local events and the political situation in the Congo was huge, but this demand wasn't fulfilled, at least not for the soldiers. An important question concerns “Your relation to the natives”, where 111 (71%) answers “Good” or “Very good”.
The service in the refugee camp put high demands on the soldiers who describes it as follows:
“Difficult”, “Became hardened”, “Became upset to seeing all children in that misery”, “Felt helpless”, etc. Then came the question “Did you participate in combat in the Congo?”, where a total of 114 (73%) answer yes to that question. Another question concerns how the soldiers reacted when they were under fire, and the soldiers answers that they took cover, became frightened, answered the fire, were shocked, or “I kept my cool”. A question near at hand is if there were any differences in how they handled these hardships, and here the answers give a strong depiction of their experiences.
“Someone became unable to act. I had to carry him, since his legs didn't work”, “I was calm and determined.”, “Some broke down and were sent home”, “The others became hysterical and cried”, “The big, strong boys, who had the most girls, and drank the most were those who broke down first, screaming and praying to God”, “The mental pressure became too much for several of my comrades. Mostly the youngest guys. Since I was responsible for a squad, or a platoon, I couldn’t just think about myself, which probably was a big help.” The enquiry contains several questions about the soldiers’ mental health after returning to Sweden, and it seems that the majority did not perceive that their experiences gave them any troubles, but of course there were exceptions.
The enquiry also asks the question if the service in the Congo strengthened the soldier mentally, and among the answers you find the following: “I had a couple of breakdown from what I saw and experienced in the Congo. If you suffer and get through a crisis, your psyche gets stronger”, “Was held in captivity for 45 days under strong mental pressure. Nothing that has happened after that could be worse. It is important to know that you can get through hard mental pressure”, “I have gotten another view on problems. I have gained better self-confidence. I have gained insight in how little a person means to others, except for the closest relatives. I have felt how strong the comradeship can be, and how much it means to be able to solve problems and improvise.” Among the final questions is “What is your strongest memory from the service?”, which is answered by: “The camaraderie”, “The combat events”, “The service in the refugee camp”, “When a comrade fell”. Frost concludes the enquiry with the following words: “What is this enquiry good for? I have been asked that question as well. Is it just to satisfy my curiosity? There is some truth in that. I have always ‘looked’ back at what happened in the Congo, and thus wondered many times if I am alone in thinking this or that. Firstly, the enquiry came to be with the purpose of figuring out how we experienced the service, and how we experienced our relation to the natives and the refugees.”
The letters, photos, and the Congo enquiry which Lars Frost has left with the Peace Archive connects in several ways to issues regarding masculinity, camaraderie, and expectations – as well as on manly and courageous behavior. Finally, you get to see the human behind the facade of the expected image of a UN soldier.