As Cambodian soldiers assembled for a ceremony Wednesday ahead of a one-year peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic, military officials expressed concerns over the Ebola outbreak that has been ravaging parts of West Africa.
The peacekeepers were scheduled to fly out at noon Wednesday, but General Sem Sovanny, director-general of the National Center of Peacekeeping Force, said last night that the mission had been delayed for about two weeks because 20 soldiers sent ahead to build accommodations for the incoming troops hadn’t completed the construction.
During the two-hour ceremony at the Phnom Penh Military Airbase, Defense Minister Tea Banh said that while the 196 peacekeepers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Engineering Company 945 are trained well, their new posting would prove a challenge.
“[The training] must have been difficult enough for them,” General Banh said. “But the differences in Central African Republic are geographical, political…and cultural. Not just that, southern Africa is encountering the Ebola virus right now.”
So far this year, the deadly West African Ebola outbreak has infected 9,178 people and killed 4,546, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most cases have been reported in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In the Central African Republic, located in Central Africa, there have been zero reported cases of Ebola during the recent outbreak, but the WHO has said there is a real risk that the virus could spread to the country.
Following Wednesday’s ceremony, several peacekeepers said they were proud to be taking part in the mission, but were also worried about coming in contact with the virus.
“I am very proud that the government is sending me to implement this mission,” said Colonel Kham Sereyrith, the commander of Company 945, which will be tasked with demining, disarming explosives and building roads.
“I am also concerned about the Ebola virus, but I hope that because the U.N. has their standards and doctors, all the soldiers will have their health checked every two weeks,” he said.
Chuong Kanhasocheata, 23, shared her commander’s concern.
“I am most concerned about the Ebola virus,” she said, “even though I am happy to go there.”
Since 2006, Cambodia has sent a total of 2,165 peacekeepers to assist in U.N. missions, said U.N. security adviser Roger Carter at the ceremony, adding that Company 945 would be the second Cambodian unit to deploy to Central African Republic.
When Cambodian peacekeepers departed for Mali in April, concerns were also raised about the spread of disease.
Siv Sovannaroth, head of the National Malaria Center’s technical office, said at the time that if drug-resistant forms of malaria found in Cambodia reached Africa, they could wreak havoc on the continent.
Resistance to Artemisinin, the only drug used to treat malaria in Africa, was first discovered along the Cambodian-Thai border in 2008, and has since been reported in areas of Vietnam, Burma and Laos.