May 29 is marked as the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, and is celebrated globally by paying rich tributes to the peacekeepers for their sacrifices for the restoration of peace.
The UN Peacekeeping Mission is a great honour for soldiers and is highly challenging. It is very well commended as “Peacekeeping is not the job of soldiers, but only a soldier can do that.”
Pakistan has a rich history of serving the United Nations Peace Missions around the globe. Pakistan has tremendously contributed towards many UN peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Congo, Burundi, Cambodia, East Timor and many other countries.
On June 5, 1993, American soldiers were trapped by Somali rebels and Pakistani soldiers were tasked with conducting a rescue operation to evacuate and protect American soldiers. As a result of skirmishes, 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were martyred. Operation Black Hawk is another historical milestone of sacrifices by Pakistani soldiers in the history of peacekeeping. Colonel Paulo Gonclaves of Portugal Army, wrote: “If the American contingent had done the coordination in advance with the Pakistani contingent and had not engaged alone, maybe no one would have died. The Pakistanis were called for rescue not for the initial engagement. I have witnessed the competence and impartial professional approach of Pakistani peacekeepers in the war zone of Bosnia-Herzegovinia.” It is worth mentioning here that Major General Thomas M Montgomery, the deputy force commander of UN in Somalia, in his memoir, recalls Operation Black Hawk, stating: “Many of the US soldiers are alive today because of the willingness and skills of the Pakistani soldiers who worked jointly in a rescue operation. We are thankful to the people and Army of Pakistan for sending such splendid soldiers to Somalia whom we feel proud to serve with. Pakistani soldiers have been completely dependable even in the most difficult circumstances. They have shouldered a huge and dangerous load for the United Nations Mission in Somalia and Somali people.”
Testifying to the professionalism and swift action undertaken by the Pakistani peacekeepers, Col (retd) Saad Ibnul Hassan, who was then captain, had said that they were not informed about the design of the American operation and were only contacted by the US command at midnight, when Black Hawk was down.
A former UN Peacekeeping force commander, General Daniel Ismael Opande, wrote of the love and respect for Pakistani soldiers in his autobiography, In Pursuit of Peace in Africa. He wrote: “My deployment in Kashmir earthquake in October 2005 was my contribution to honour the sacrifices of gallant Pakistani soldiers who had served in the Peace Mission under my command in Liberia and Sierra Leone… The plight of Kashmiri people in the earthquake reminded me of the sufferings of the people in West Africa under different circumstances. I wanted to do whatever I could do to assist my former colleagues and fellow peacekeepers in their hour of need… The destruction wrought by war is one thing, but what I witnessed in Muzaffarabad and surrounding areas was beyond my belief.”
During my service in the UN mission in Liberia, General Opande had unfolded his battle map on December 20, 2003, and assigned tasks to the respective commanders. Pakistani peacekeepers were the first to move out and set an example for the entire mission. On December 25, Pakistani peacekeepers were ready to be deployed and were eager to be stationed beyond the Saint Paul River, a stronghold of rebel fighters, as a show of support on Christmas, to the people of Liberia.
Liberia is situated on the tip of the Atlantic Ocean, on the coasts of western Africa. Liberia’s terrain ranges from the low and sandy coastal plains to the rolling hills as we move inland. The country is home to a lush rainforest containing a rich diversity of flora and fauna. The country enjoyed relative stability until a rebellion in 1989 escalated into a destructive civil war in the 1990s that did not fully cease until 2003. Liberia is bound by Sierra Leone to the northwest, Guinea to the north, Côte d’Ivoire to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west. It is a mineral rich country full of diamonds, iron and a rubber plantation and serves as a free port in the middle of West Africa.
After the deployment in far-flung areas of Bomi County Hills, Tubmanburg, Cape Mount County, Bopolo, and Lofa county, Pakistani peacekeepers brought a new hope for the people of Liberia and won their hearts and minds. They followed the UN mandate in true spirit and brought back life into the war-struck country by repairing roads, bridges, schools, churches, mosques and hospitals. The Pakistani Medical Corps treated over a 100,000 Liberians and provided free medical care in far-flung areas which were previously impossible to reach. Naturally, the UN Security Council lauded these efforts.
During the second major deployment on the axis of Cape Mount County near Bah rubber plantation, the rebels had retaliated and had refused to dismantle the road blocks. This was against the UN Accra Accord. This was a not only a challenging but time-testing situation for the Pakistani soldiers. Nevertheless, the Pakistan contingent commander informed the UN force commander and asked him to protect the UN Mandate and allow for self defence of peacekeeping forces. The force commander had in return ordered the peacekeepers over the radio to dismantle the road block forcefully and move ahead to establish contact with Sierra Leone forces. He also ordered the Ukrainian Combat Gunship to fly in close support and engage in case of fire from the rebels. Very boldly, the Pakistani and Namibian peacekeepers penetrated into the stronghold and dismantled the check post and road blocks, as the rebels were seen backtracking into the plantation. Meanwhile a robust close support mission also provided cover to the peacekeepers. Despite being a difficult day, the UN peacekeepers implemented the mandate and ensured a timely deployment.
I was part of the first Pakistani contingent ensuring peace in Liberia under the UN flag, which returned to its homeland after 14 months, in January 2005, wherein Pakistani peacekeepers earned a great reputation not only for Pakistan Army but for the entire nation. As Pakistani peacekeepers departed, the residents of Bomi Hills had lined up to wave goodbye. Former war factions and community leaders along with children were standing on both sides of the roads, clearly depicting the message that peace will prevail only when the power of love will overcome the love for power.