My peacekeeping mission experience
Having served in Bangladesh Army for 37 years, I had the rare opportunity of putting on blue beret for nearly six years in four missions. I spent nearly five years in Africa.
Needless to mention that majority of UN's peacekeeping operations have been and are in Africa. Why is it that the bulk of the UN's peacekeeping efforts in terms of number, deployment and cost have been in Africa? The youngest President in the history of France, Emmanuel Macron, recently uttered a blunt truth which none of his predecessors dared to say. He said that “the colonization of Africa was a barbaric act.” Many academicians and experts believe that the root cause of conflict, violence, strife and civil war in Africa lies in the way the continent was colonized and subsequently decolonized. Africa's present borders were drawn up on a map in 1885 by European rulers who disregarded the ethnic demography across the continent. Very sadly, it was seen that people belonging to same ethnic group were to live in two, three or four different countries where they were either marginalized or became a minority.
When these countries gained independence in the second half of last century, it was appalling that the colonial powers did not leave behind a strong political system and legacy. The state institutions were weak and dysfunctional. Africa saw the emergence of highly autocratic rulers who practiced exclusionist politics and repression. They mostly favoured their own ethnic people resulting in marginalization of minorities and causing ethnic animosities. Tension and unrest in the society gave rise to coups, countercoups and civil war.
It would be worthwhile to take a respite from my pondering on Africa and talk about my first mission performed in the rank of 'Major' in early nineties. 27 years ago in 1990, Iraq's President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Soon afterwards, a multi-national force led by the US launched offensives and Kuwait was liberated in March 1991. In April 1991, UN Security Council deployed an observer mission to monitor the demilitarized zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border, deter border violations and to report on any hostile action. Bangladesh was one of the 32 participating countries and contributed 7 Army Officers to this 300-strong observer mission.
My Experience in United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM)
I was indeed fortunate to be in the first group – the pioneers of UNIKOM that arrived in the mission area in April 1991. To have been the part of the first group in a peacekeeping mission was challenging in the sense that we didn't have the necessary amenities and infrastructure. But it was highly rewarding to see how a peacekeeping mission grew and developed from scratch. We had to adapt ourselves very quickly to the work in a multi-national environment – all the permanent member countries (P5) of Security Council contributed military observers in this mission. So, we were excited about proving that we know how to conduct patrols, prepare reports, give briefings and deal with emergencies such as evacuating Iraqi civilians who used to get injured almost regularly due to mine and unexploded ordnance blasts. It has to be underlined that our first six months were the most difficult as we had to live in tents in temperatures soaring above 50 degrees Celsius. As Bangladeshis, we proved that we can survive in isolated camps in the desert without any sort of modern amenities.
Our concern was that we must not let ourselves down. Overall, as precursors in UNIKOM, we performed well. A testimony to this is that after a few years, the UN chose Bangladesh to contribute an Infantry Battalion for providing security to the unarmed observers when the security situation worsened in the demilitarized zone.
My Experience in Ivory Coast (MINUCI and UNOCI)
I performed three different roles in Ivory Coast. First, in 2003-04, I served as the Chief of a group of 75 Military Liaison Officers. The next year, when a peacekeeping force was deployed there, I served as the Deputy Force Commander (DFC) for one year. Thereafter, I returned home in 2005. After five years, in 2010, I returned to Ivory Coast as Force Commander of UNOCI.
In June 2003, when we landed at Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, we were amazed to find a city with skyscrapers, good road networks and solid infrastructure. The leading producer of cocoa and 5th largest producer of coffee in the world, Ivory Coast was the most prosperous country among the 15 West African nations. Unfortunately, the country was divided into two with pro-government forces controlling the southern part and the armed opposition controlling the North. A 15- km wide buffer zone separated the two forces. A 3000-strong peacekeeping force from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) was deployed there supported by 6000 French military personnel.
MINUCI was essentially a political mission. Our challenge was to maintain contact with the belligerents and to establish liaison with the military forces. We were trying to build confidence and trust between the armed groups in cooperation with the French and West African forces. Unfortunately, there was very little progress on the implementation of the peace process; the trust between the parties was lacking and we witnessed political unrest and sporadic violence. As the situation started worsening and ECOWAS was unable to support its forces, UN deployed a full-fledged peace-keeping mission in April 2004. ECOWAS troops were rehatted and Bangladesh joined this mission with three infantry battalions, a brigade HQ, a level II hospital and military observers. For me, it was a rewarding experience to participate in the transformation process of a small political mission into a fairly big peacekeeping operation. Having to prepare the ground work for this transformation was a big challenge for us.
I became the Deputy Force Commander of the military component of UNOCI. Primarily I had to exercise control over the military observers and conduct negotiations with the military commanders of armed groups. The most challenging experience for me and for the Bangladeshi contingent was the relapsing of conflict between the two belligerents in November 2004. A full-blown war erupted between the two sides when the opposition withdrew from the government. The situation further degenerated when an Ivorian attack helicopter killed 9 French soldiers and a US aid worker. The French military retaliated by destroying Ivorian Air assets. Thousands of angry protesters came down on the streets of Abidjan vandalizing businesses, shops and attacking the houses of foreigners. Most of the UN mission's installations and camps in the government controlled territory came under attack by violent protesters who laid blockades outside the compounds. Dealing with the security of UN installations was a big challenge but it was all the more difficult to take care of hundreds of foreigners who took refuge on our premises. Three great lessons were learnt – but these were not new:
First, there has to be credible progress in the political roadmap agreed upon by the parties. If not, relapse to civil war is most likely.
Second, there has to be “a peace to keep” and peacekeepers go in to keep it. This is of course an underpinning principle of peacekeeping.
Third, peacekeepers must foresee the consequence of fast-evolving situation on the ground and be prepared to face it.
On completion of a 2-year tour of duty in Ivory Coast, I returned home in 2005. After 5 years, I had the opportunity of serving as Force Commander in UNOCI. With enhanced political endeavour of the international community and UNOCI,the much awaited Presidential Elections were held in Ivory Coast in October 2010.
My first experience in this tour of duty was spearheading the dialogue between the two militaries and to encourage them to adhere to the ceasefire. At the military level, Force HQ had to continuously remain engaged with the belligerents so as to keep the peace process going.
My second experience was working out the security arrangements for the elections. The planning, arranging and providing logistical and security support throughout the country to the two rounds of Presidential elections was a very crucial task. UNOCI military secured the transportation of all electoral material to the voting centers. Our Units that included two Bangladeshi battalions escorted the result sheets from 326 local election centers to the Election Commission in the capital. There was not a single incident of ballot boxes or result sheets being lost or intercepted by miscreants. Through extensive patrolling in all sensitive areas as a “show off force”, we were able to create an environment that saw more than 80% turnout of voters – which is rare in African context.
Unfortunately, President Gbagbo refused to accept the results and refused to hand over power to the winner of the elections, Mr. Outtara. This triggered the third civil war in November 2010. Gbagbo also asked UNOCI to leave the country.
So, my third experience was to operate and function under a tremendously hostile situation; the pro-Gbagbo media was carrying out deliberate and vicious anti-UNOCI campaign trying to project that the UN military – the blue berets, were fighting alongside the “rebels” against the government and the people. Being instigated, the Gbagbo loyalists were either attacking or blocking UN convoys and posts/premises. Therefore, having to deal with hostilities from pro-Gbagbo military and loyalists was a routine affair for nearly five months.
My fourth experience and biggest challenge was ensuring protection of the President-elect, important dignitaries and ministers who took refuge in a hotel in the capital. UNOCI military and police had to face every kind of intimidation, provocation, hate propaganda and barricades by pro-Gbagbo elements and supporters. In spite of the blockade at the two main approaches to the hotel, we succeeded in providing regular supplies to 600 UN troops including Formed Police Units deployed there. Having served as UN Force Commander at a very critical time in Ivory Coast, I would like to highlight three lessons:
-- There has to be peace to keep. And peacekeepers go in to keep it. Time and again Ivory Coast was spiraling back into conflict – there were situations in which there was no peace to keep.
-- Assumptions made at the time of initial planning and deployment may prove to be wrong.
-- In order to face hostilities and intimidation, a commander needs troops with good training, motivation and resilience.
In a nutshell, I had to go through a profoundly complex and difficult situation. Nevertheless, it was a highly rewarding and most challenging experience for me.
The writer is former Force Commander in Ivory Coast.