Kolenda brings humanitarian message to Congolese soldiers
By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Southborough – In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), the word “kolenda” means strong. When Southborough Selectman Daniel Kolenda visited the DCR to train soldiers on the rules of war, “the troops would chant and sing it, sometimes around me, after a training class,” he relayed.
In April, Kolenda visited the DRC for the second time, to a base camp in Mura in the southern part of the country. He was part of a Mobile Education Team of military lawyers from different branches of the armed services. Kolenda is a major in the Army Reserves Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.
The training missions are organized by the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS) based at the Naval Station in Newport, R.I., in coordination with the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.
For decades, the DRC’s army has been fighting dozens of rebel groups who are trying to get a hold of the country’s vast mineral resources.
Despite the country’s riches, the people of the DRC live in extreme poverty. Kolenda has photographs of grass huts where the soldiers sleep and makeshift showers rigged with plastic water bottles.
He recalled a creative way local children made money off of visiting westerners. Children would dig holes in the dirt road, so cars couldn’t pass. After receiving a toll, they would fill the holes in.
“I looked back as we drove away, and they were already digging the holes again,” Kolenda said.
Although Kolenda and the team were not near the active fighting, conditions were not ideal. For nine days, in 90-degree heat, they trained nearly 3,000 soldiers on variety of topics including military justice, laws of armed conflict, international rights and avoiding gender violence.
“It was definitely a challenging environment,” Kolenda said, “but the soldiers were very enthusiastic. They loved training with Americans.”
Using a sheet on the wall to deliver the DIILS Power Point presentation, the team spent from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. training soldiers in groups of about 100.
Despite language, culture and educational differences, “the troops were very engaged and asked really good questions,” Kolenda said. “These are new concepts for them, but they were very receptive.”
One question asked was why they should follow rules of war when their enemies don’t.
“That makes you no different than the enemy,” Kolenda told them.
He noted that one of the best things about the training was that the officers were listening and reinforced the message to their troops.
“The soldiers were taught that there are two parts of their mission: to defeat the enemy and to protect the population. We explained why they can’t target civilians and should protect certain buildings, such as churches and hospitals,” Kolenda explained. “If they don’t, they will lose the population they are there to protect and create more enemies.”
In addition to his military service, Kolenda is well-known in Southborough for his service to the community. He was recently re-elected to the Board of Selectman for a three-year term, has served on the Regional School Committee since 2009, and coaches Little League.
He joined the Army Reserve in 1999 and served in Iraq in 2008-9 on a rule of law mission.
Originally from Nebraska, he and his wife Kathy have lived in Southborough for 20 years. They have three children: James, 17, who just graduated from Algonquin Regional High School, Annalise, 12, and Matthew, 10.
Kolenda has worked at CA Technologies, a software manufacturer based in Framingham, for 11 years.
“They are very supportive of my military service,” he said, noting that often there is little advance notice for training missions.
He hopes his work will have a positive impact on the dire situation in the DRC.
“These missions are incredibly worthwhile and valuable,” Kolenda said. “We leave there really satisfied about the work that’s been done and hopeful that it sticks.”
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