Herbie on a UN Mission

Hindustan Times | Jul 2, 1998

On our UN mission in Namibia, military observers had precious little to do after the first three months as the implementation of UN Resolution 435 proceeded with clockwork precision and without the usual hassles which plague most UN missions. Hence, there was time for other activities and the Force Commander, Lt. Gen. Prem Chand, asked me to move to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia and the headquarters of the civil military Transition Assistance Group, to edit the UNTAG Journal.
On arrival at Windhoek, I surrendered my Toyota Landcruiser, the roomy four-by-four used by UN Military observers the world over, and was given a Volkswagen Golf, a compact city car and a marvel of German engineering by Tom O’Neal, the Chief Transport Officer (CTO) of UNTAG. The car, with the number plate of UNTAG 220, gave me much joy as well as some moment of anxiety and despair.
My first trip outside Windhoek was to Grootfontein, to spend the weekend with some Indian military observers. I was cruising along merrily at about 120 kph on a wide road when, in a flash, a large flying bird rose out of the bushes on the sight and crashed headlong into the windscreen. There was no time at all to react. Blood and feathers were all over me and the car. Amazingly, except for a shattered windscreen, the Golf was none the worse for wear. I slowed down to a snail’s pace, survived the grins and half-smiles of people on the way, and pulled into Grootfontein with a sense of relief. Nair, Bhattacharya and Jamwal greeted me at the gate of their cottage with a lot of sympathy but burst out laughing when I told them that an ostrich had slammed into my car. “You city slicker,” one of them said, “You ought to know the difference between a wild fowl and an ostrich. If it had been an ostrich, neither you nor the car would have survived!”
A few weeks later, a young UN lady who was planning a weekend trip to Sossusvlei, the tourist site in the Namib desert with the highest sand dunes in the world, borrowed my Golf and left her Landcruiser with me. Somewhere along the way, she skidded into a tree and returned with tears in her eyes and a whole lot of bruises. The damage was considerable. Tom O’Neal was livid.
Exchanging cars was against the rules, he proclaimed and threatened me with dire consequences if there was one more incident involving a UN vehicle and me. Not the least one of his threats was that my car would be permanently withdrawn. The car was again back in German hands and was soon returned to me in a sehr gut condition, as the chief mechanic proudly said.
By now, UNTAG 220 was the talk of the town. But there was more to come. During the course of a wonderful dinner on the lawns of the Force Commander’s lovely house, there was a loud bang and the unmistakable sound of metal crunching metal on the road outside. “An accident,” said someone. “Not with my car, I hope,” I prayed. But presently the sentry at the gate walked up and enquired, “Sir, to whom does UNTAG 220 belong?” My heart sank. This time it was an Afrikaner lady who had reversed into my parked car. She was profusely apologetic and offered to have the car repaired. But I could think only of Tom O’Neal. Would he believe this yarn?
The next morning I walked into Tom’s office. He looked up and his face lost its colour. “Major,” he said, “Not again! Please tell me you haven’t banged your car again,” I told Tom the story. He was incredulous. “Why don’t you start walking?” he asked. Anyway, this time he did not have much of a choice—no ‘rules’ had been infringed. “I am not particularly superstitious,” he said, “But why don’t you take another car?” I refused to hear of it. I had become extremely fond of my car and was not willing to give it up even for a Jaguar or a Ferrari.
Well, before the mission was finally over, there were many more ‘incidents’ in which my car was involved—usually with me in it! But, perhaps, more of those on another day.