René Wagemans - Copyright: International Polar Foundation - © International Polar Foundation

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Interviewing Lieutenant Colonel René Wagemans

Lt. Col. René Wagemans is from the Belgain Army's Humanitarian Crisis Response Unit attached to the Planning Division of the Assistant Chief of Staff (ACOS - Ops & Training). He heads B-FAST (Belgian First Aid and Support Team) and the UNDAC (United Nations Disaster Assistance Coordination) team, which respond to humanitarian crises. In BELARE 2007-08 Lt. Col Wagemans was involved with the preparations and the training of the military contingent of the expedition, which he headed during the 2008 phase of operations. He also was assistant head of the traverse teams during BELARE 2007-08.

You've been involved in BELARE since 2005, but you haven't been on any expeditions so far. Why did you go this year?

This time they needed two officers to be head of the military detachment going down there, and one of them is my colleague working at the Ministry of Defence, so I volunteered to go and they accepted.

What was it like going to Antarctica after having been to so many other places around the world working for the UNDAC?

The environment is so fantastic. It's something completely different. You can't describe it. You have to be there to understand how this continent it is and how hard it is to survive. As a human being without your technology you're just lost there. It's something specific that you'd have to experience yourself to understand.

Besides being responsible for the military detachment and assistant head of the driving team, did you have any other responsibilities?

During the last month, after all supplies had been brought, I was also the base camp manager, so I got involved in the shutdown of the camp. This mainly involved positioning the materials and putting them in the containers with the other guys and putting the containers on the ice so they can stay there over winter. I also organised the flight back to Cape Town and the practical stuff that's related to it.

You were with Didier most of the time?

I was with Didier unless he didn't come. And then there was the week when we decided to do no traverses and it was only after that that we had to do two more to get all the fuel drums back. Actually on the first of these traverses we had to come back due to the technical problems with the tractor and also due to the white-out, which made it impossible for us to go on.

What are your thoughts about having been able to participate in such a historic expedition?

First of all I saw it being part of this unique expedition as a major opportunity. It's a unique project. If you saw the concept of how it was constructed and you see how it will be used later on it's a very unique approach.

I'm quite proud to have been able to participate in constructing something that will be there for the next 25 years or more. It's one of those unique experiences that you get maybe only once in your life and therefore I'm quite thankful that I was able to be a part of this expedition. The people I met on the expedition were very unique guys. For me I see it as a very positive experience. While I've had a number of interesting experiences in both the Belgian Military and within the UN, I think this one will remain on the top of the most interesting experiences list for a very long time.

What were the most memorable aspects of the expedition?

The natural environment fascinated me the most. On two occasions we visited the area surrounding Utsteinen. You could see these vast mountains around you. It's a countryside that you can't describe. The nature and the Antarctic makes you feel very humble. For me, these excursions were some of the moments I really enjoyed being there.

Of course during the traverses there was always something that we could experience, mainly regarding nature. The traverses by themselves might appear to be very boring. But if you look around, you can see how the weather is changing or how things change when night starts to fall. Once we started having real sunsets with all the different colours that you could see, it was wonderful. These are unique moments that you can only experience in a polar environment.

How did you feel when you saw the completed station?

I was very proud. I was proud that we in the driving team managed to honour our contract by getting all the materials there on time so the construction team was not held up. I was proud that the station was completed earlier than expected. The fact that we could go home early proved that we did a very good job. I'm proud that there's something that will remain in the Antarctic for 25 years or more, and I can say, "I was part of this project. I made it happen with all the other members of the team."

Was there anything in particular that you missed while in Antarctica?

I think what I missed the most in Antarctica - and I think this was the same for most of us - is my family, and certainly my kids. It depends how you feel about it, and this is something that each individual has to solve on his or her own. For me, of course being in the military I'm used to being away from home for long periods of time. However it's been a very long time since I've had to be away for more than a month. You feel like back home, your family and your kids are waiting for you to come back.

Now that you're back, is there anything about there that you miss?

What I miss the most about being back is the hugeness of Antarctica and the environment in which you're working - the mountains, the snow, the white plains - this is something I miss. Maybe I got a certain virus that will call me back to Antarctica.

Are you planning on going back next year?

I hope so. It's a unique experience and I think that this experience from the personal side has been an added value. Since I know what the situation was when we left, it would be advantageous for me to go again. But there has to be a good reason to send me back, so it's something I'll have to discuss with my superiors.

Author: IPF

Picture: René Wagemans - Copyright: International Polar Foundation - © International Polar Foundation

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