Dutch Elvis preacher in international press.

Dutch Armed Forces preacher and ElvisMatters member Fred Omvlee, known for his Elvis Gospel Celebrations in the Netherlands, is stationed in the inhospitable terrain of Northern Afghanistan. He is not only an ordained minister in the Dutch Protestant Church but also a huge Elvis-fan. Chaplain Omvlee carries the religious appreciation of Elvis' life & music with him wherever he is working, and has even discussed Elvis with the local Afghan mullah. This week, April 3rd, both the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times published an article about the jungle training in Suriname. Needless to say that the reporter couldn�t resist of mentioning this very special Elvis fan and preacher. Here�s the full story. O, Fred is on top right, on this picture.

The Netherlands may have relinquished control of this South American country in 1975, but one day last month it seemed as if it had never left as Sergeant Major Bart Cobussen expounded on killing techniques in the Surinamese jungle for two Dutch platoons at their camp here.

�To begin with, you must be dirty, stinking and sleeping in a very uncomfortable place,� said Sgt. Maj. Cobussen, 47, who directs the jungle warfare course of the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps. �Suriname is the perfect place to achieve these conditions, getting us into nice activities like patrolling, ambushing and six days of live firing.�

Such activities may sound nice to Dutch marines, but in Suriname they still arouse suspicions about the intentions of the former colonial power. After a visit this year by Eimert van Middlekoop, the Dutch defense minister, newspapers in the capital, Paramaribo, speculated, erroneously, that the Netherlands was planning to establish a military base in the country.

In an effort to dispel such talk, the Dutch marines organized what they called a V.I.P. day, inviting high-ranking officials in the Surinamese military, some foreign ambassadors and even a few journalists to learn about their jungle warfare course.

�We have absolutely no secret agenda whatsoever going on in Suriname,� Tanya van Gool, the Dutch ambassador, told the invitees on the trip to meet the marines. �Some people think we are putting up an illegal base. We most definitely are not.�

The V.I.P.�s (and not so V.I.P.�s), who included the ambassadors of China, France and Indonesia, got the point, all nodding in unison.

Still, some murmured questions to one another as their bus barrelled over a potholed road from Paramaribo toward Pikin Saron. Why are the seemingly peace-loving Dutch so concerned about jungle warfare? Why in Suriname, one of South America�s least-known countries? And what is the course like, anyway?

The answers, when they arrived from Sergeant Major Cobussen and other Dutch military officials, were a window into Dutch relations with Suriname and the sometimes arduous path faced by the Netherlands in trying to emerge as a culturally sensitive postcolonial nation.

Striving for the utmost transparency, the marine instructors had their grunts build an outdoor classroom from old lumber in a cleared area of rain forest. From a modest lectern, they engaged the visitors in a lively discussion about what brought them here.

�Some 70 percent of the world�s conflicts in the last 30 years have occurred in jungle areas,� said Maj. Eric Piwek, 34, who brought the 31st Infantry Company of the Dutch Marines here from its base in the Netherlands Antilles. �Thus, we must be prepared to go into these unfortunate places to help sort things out.�

Toughening up the Dutch military for missions abroad became a priority after Dutch troops serving with the United Nations in Srebrenica were widely vilified for failing to prevent Serbs from massacring about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1995.

The Dutch government has since sent troops to Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Liberia. In May, the Netherlands is expected to send about 60 service members to eastern Chad and the Central African Republic as part of a European Union mission to provide security for camps of Sudanese refugees.

But the ambassadors trekking through the jungle on a recent Tuesday morning were focused on less lofty matters. After hearing that wild animals like monkeys, boar and capybaras are eaten by indigenous tribes near Pikin Saron, Su Ge, the Chinese ambassador, had a question.

�Do you do any hunting during the course?� asked Mr. Su, whose country is building a sprawling embassy on the outskirts of Paramaribo. With a blush of embarrassment, a Dutch officer answered in the affirmative, explaining that hunting was allowed, but only during the course�s brief focus on survival.

The Dutch are not the only Europeans honing their fighting techniques in this part of South America. In French Guiana, where France once banished its worst convicts, the Foreign Legion runs its own jungle warfare school. Until starting their course a few years ago, the Dutch sent some of its soldiers there.

But training with the Legionnaires was different, with instruction in French and salutes to the French flag. �The French did things their own way, drinking their wine and eating their bread in the jungle,� said Sergeant Major Cobussen, the course instructor, cracking the slightest of smiles. �We prefer it here.�

In Suriname, where the Netherlands remains among the top aid donors, the troops encounter the rare ease of speaking in their own tongue, still the official language here. The Netherlands pays Suriname�s government in equipment like trucks and tarps (no weapons, please, the Dutch emphasize) for the right to send 60 troops here twice a year for periods of about a month.

In a measure of the course�s challenges, about 10 percent drop out. But �Full Metal Jacket� this is not.

For those who persevere, the officers lighten things up by bringing in a navy chaplain, the Rev. Fred Omvlee, whose services revolve around Elvis Presley�s gospel repertory. Before finishing, the troops also get a 48-hour break, put up in style at the Torarica, one of Paramaribo�s best hotels.

Surinamese military officials seemed amused by their visit to the course, a day that culminated when the ambassadors were allowed to shoot M-16 assault rifles at targets in the jungle. The Surinamese spent much of the day chatting in Portuguese with Brazil�s military attach�, their fluency a result of officer-level courses in neighbouring Brazil.

Indeed, military ties with the Netherlands seemed like a distraction compared with the training in Brazil, aid and equipment provided to Suriname�s military by China and a recent agreement with the United States to test American-made military vehicles in Suriname.

Between puffs on a cigarette, Maj. R. J. Martopawiro of the Surinamese Army mused upon the jungle warfare course as something of an odd legacy of the strong ties Suriname once had with the Netherlands.

�When it comes down to it,� Major Martopawiro said, �we really don�t pay a great deal of attention to the Dutch anymore.�

Herald Tribune - New York Times

Posted:  5th. April 2008 

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