A Day in the Life of a Peacekeeper
The UN wasn’t created to take mankind into paradise, but rather to save humanity from hell
~ Dag Hammarskjold
Recently I gave a presentation to the Lansing, Michigan chapter of the United Nations Association as part of a popular series called Java Café: a presentation on a topic of interest followed by questions and lively discussion, coffee and munchies. The topic that evening was “a day in the life” of a UN Peacekeeper.
It was a lively well-attended meeting with requests for additional presentations on this and other subjects.
A Day In The Life of a Peacekeeper
To illustrate life as a UNP (UN Peacekeeper) I choose excerpts from a previous book I wrote but which is no longer in print and from a new manuscript which I hope will soon replace it. The first example is from a chapter entitled “Negotiating Under Fire,” which took place in 1993 in Somalia.
It happened a scant couple of months after the infamous Blackhawk helicopter incident in which two US helicopters were shot down during an ill-fated raid. Perhaps you remember the movie “Black Hawk Down” based on that event.
Sporadic fighting and running battles between two large clans at the airport finally erupted into all-out warfare. As a result, one UN aircraft was shot up and at least one local staff member killed. Keeping the Mogadishu airport open was absolutely essential as UN personnel and most supplies came and went through it.
After being summoned to the office of the Director of Administration, I was immediately assigned as negotiator on a small team of four senior staff members hastily assembled to bring an end to hostilities and reopen the airport. We were given a close protection team from the US Army contingent and would be airlifted into the midst of the ongoing battle.
As the helicopter lifted off the pad, the roar of the engines made it impossible to speak so I retreated into my own thoughts. Meanwhile, the forlorn, dusty war-torn city passing beneath actually looked calm and one could easily imagine there was no firefight waiting for us on that quiet sunny morning. A vain hope quickly shattered.
Rifle Fire, Machine Guns, Gang Warfare
As we approached the airport, the muffled sound of automatic rifle fire and large machine guns grew steadily louder and abruptly cut through my thoughts which by now were going a mile a minute. It occurred to me that we could actually die if this all went bad. We had suffered a number of UN staff deaths, but as it was too late to change things, I immediately put that out of my head.
As we hovered in the already stiflingly hot morning air, picking the safest place to land, we saw two large groups of men seeking shelter behind makeshift barriers while sporadically firing at each other across the tarmac. It seemed more like gang warfare on steroids than an organized battle. Slowly we settled into a relatively safe space slightly away from the largest concentration of fighting.
As the rotors slowly ground to a halt, the sound of gunfire grew until it became overwhelming, gut-wrenching in fact; and while it was not directed at us, any stray bullet ripping through the thin skin of a helicopter is just as deadly as one aimed directly at you. I thought the two Somali translators seemed rather unfazed as they slowly descended from the craft. Immediately recognizing several of the fighters, they smiled and called them over.
Caution, Negotiation, and Yes, Peacekeeping!
After several minutes of conversation, two unarmed elders accompanied by a translator began to walk slowly across the fire zone, motioning for the other side to meet them. Expecting the worst I was quite relieved when several men from across the airstrip actually stepped forward. The firing around us slowed and at this point, they motioned for us to join them. Cautiously, I and the Legal Affairs Officer, another member of the team, walked out to meet them.
For a couple tense hours the team shuttled back and forth across the tarmac, reasoning, and cajoling – first with one side then the other, all the while with live fire all around us and the dangerously hot Somali sun baking us.
As it finally appeared they were growing tired of the fight, or maybe tired of us getting in the way of the fight, we were joined by a Major from the Egyptian military contingent which was permanently stationed at the airport. He wisely suggested we continue talking in a nearby building, out of the sun. With this, we persuaded elders and leaders from both clans to halt the fighting temporarily while we talked. Once inside the hangar, the Egyptians brought bottles of cool water and tea, a gesture that greatly eased tensions.
I finally began to breathe again.
Sitting around a large table, both sides confirmed the fight was over the several hundred people we would be hiring to do repairs to airport facilities. They also stressed that paying jobs were very scarce indeed and worth fighting over. I emphasized that unless the airport was open and secure, there would be no jobs at all. Just before dusk, we agreed on a temporary end to hostilities with the understanding we would reopen the airport and continue to meet over the next month to discuss the distribution of the jobs.
Over the next few days, as we began to actually hire staff for the new jobs, the situation settled down.
This was quite memorable and certainly, of a very different order than the many labor negotiations I had been part of before, but it was successful. A win is a win.
Future ‘A Day In The Life of a Peacekeeper’ Posts
Look for more of the presentation on “A day in the life of a UN Peacekeeper” in my next blog when I discuss using traditional and hi-tech elements to organize a migration. The migration of cattle and people across the heavily armed and volatile border between north and south Sudan.
And if you would be interested in reading more excerpts from my manuscript, go to the feedback section of this blog and let me know.
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I had read this earlier in your book, but found myself riveted again today as I read your blog. So glad you are sharing these experiences…we have (had) no idea what life was like as a UNP.