Saturday, January 23, 2010

MONUC Employees; And What My Limited Viewpoint Has Shown Me About Them



Google-search MONUC and you get any number of accusations articles commentaries critiques declarations documents editorials impeachments indictments laws papers rants thoughts.

My closest Congolese friend has told me that he thinks (and then he has qualified his statement by saying that, well, okay, he personally doesn’t necessarily think – but he knows people who think – and he understands their reasoning –) that MONUC peacekeepers are in the business of war. After all, he has said to me, they have been here for ten years – he has seen them here for more than ten years – and what? What? War blood gore. A decade of horrible violence against civilians and a decade of paychecks for MONUC.

Me, I have seen them here for less than three months. My colleagues and I live side by side with MONUC soldiers nurses guards doctors commanders administrative assistants. From their guard towers, they point the tips of their machine guns lazily towards us as we walk down the lake road our house rests upon. They get sloshed at the same bars that we drink at. They buy chocolate and peanut butter at the same grocery stores. They laugh at cultural confusions like we do and they miss their families. Like we do.

Each and every morning, hummers tanks trucks full of soldiers wearing little blue caps or hard blue helmets, clutching their shiny rifles, blare their horns at us as we saunter to work and they speed by.

Last weekend, my housemate, R, and I crammed ourselves into my little one-seater Ndege-Samaki, my legs dangling off the back as he paddled. Giggling as we attempted to stay afloat, we rowed past three of the MONUC barracks – Indian, Indian, and South African. Everything looks different from the lakefront perspective. People look smaller and razor wire curls more gently, more forlornly, around delicate rock-piles and walls – like creeper vines that have lost their bluebell blooms. Behind the second Indian barrack, we saw MONUC men dressed in their skivvies, taking a jerry-rigged shower, lathering up and passing the soap. (I waved cheerfully – even from the distance they could tell I was female, and even from the distance I could see their cheeks burn red.)

This week, during a routine security check, our convoy stopped at a MONUC outpost (up north). The soldiers brushed aside business talk in order to serve us cookies and steaming chai. They took us to a back corner of the compound to show off their pet guinea pigs. (“Where did you get so many?” R asked. “Well,” said the MONUC commander, “we found two, and then…”). They showed us the delicate green sprouts of their freshly sowed vegetable garden. (“The DRC government wants us out. If we really are leaving soon, it’s important that we take care and leave this place nicer than we found it,” the commander explained.) They talked about their dreams of beginning a project to care for the widows of the FARDC soldiers (“Soldiers from all governments deserve respect. If their families were taken care of, it could help the soldiers feel more pride in their sacrifices, and feel more unity and brotherhood.”) They explained that they get all their food rations shipped in from Europe or the Middle East – nothing is bought locally. (What ridiculousness! Why? What a terrible shame!) When we stood to leave, they offered more chai. No? How about coffee? No coffee? Well, have you eaten? We could fix you a fresh breakfast! Here, stay, do. We have a great makeshift kitchen. (Oh. They are so lonely.)

Last month at a happy hour, drinking South African white wine and chatting with strangers, I met an Iraqi MONUC administrator who had himself once been a refugee. He is now sending his monthly paycheck home to family in Jordan, their country of refuge, and to his friends still in the camp. He had been in Congo for nearly the entirety of MONUC’s mission here. He says he is happy. He had learned Swahili. He wants to stay.

Once, in one place, at one time (and I wish I could go into great, splendid, colorful, flowing detail, but it’s not my story to tell), I was an accidental witness to a MONUC doctor breaking MONUC rules in order to treat injured children, joking with them; teasing them; ultimately showing real respect for them, their dirt, lack of status, decomposing wounds, STDs, childish fears, hopes, expectations, dreams and all. (Rules exist for reasons. I follow the rules that I am asked to live under. I’m making no comment about the ethicality of this doctor’s actions. I only wish to describe the initial terror and then the slow relief evident on the children’s faces; the kind eyes and the worried, wrinkled forehead of their physician.)

In 1994 Rwanda, a armed band of Belgium blue helmets willingly gave up their guns and were slaughtered by genocidaires. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, UN peacekeepers stood by while thousands of women and children were massacred by Milosevic’s troops. Too often, (and probably too simplified, but this is how I understand it), the mandate of UN peacekeepers is to hold guns grenades rocket launchers but never fire, never pull the pin. (Why hold them, then? It just makes people afraid and angry!) But UN Peacekeepers are not an It. These soldiers are individuals, they are varied. They are the poor, the young, those who saw no options for themselves except joining the army; and the old, the experienced. They are those who want to save the world, who want to feed their families, who want to grow rich. Those who want adventure, who want relief, who want love and family and food water self-expression.

Maybe they are not so varied. They are those who want the same two basics (physical sustenance & art) as you want, as I want, as the civilians murdered in this long war wanted, as the soldiers killed wanted – and. And. As those left alive need, desire, deserve, and must be able to procure.

So why aren’t these knotted up conflicts easier to untie?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey! I'd like to read your blog, but could you turn on the full feed instead of summaries?

Rachel said...

Sure! Thanks for the comment, I'll try to figure full feed out... in the morning... ;)

Anonymous said...

u need to interact more,every peace keeper is different and thiking also varies from contingent to contingent.also there is a lot of differnce in contingents and other civil staff.contingents stay for only 6 months.but yes most of soldiers do identify with yhe peoples problems.even in congo stories of soldiers protecting thousands of civilians have gone un reported due to a tendency to underplay achievements of asian peacekeeprs by a lot of agencies.unfortunate it is.

Rachel said...

"...due to a tendency to underplay achievements of asian peacekeeprs by a lot of agencies"

That is a rather strong statement... Would you mind telling me a bit more about why you hold this viewpoint? Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Good Post, Rachel. Very thoughtful. (xx-Lucy)

Rachel said...

Thanks, Luce! <3 <3 <3

Témoris Grecko said...

I really liked your post. I had also mostly heard bad things about the MONUC. I met some blue helmets in Cyprus, back in October. They took me for a walk in Nicosia's buffer zone, where they separate Greek-Cypriots from the Turkish army. I never thought soldiers could be like them, relaxed and cheerful. One of them was a Slovak, really cool guy, and the other one, a Briton, had created his own little museum with things he'd found in the buffer zone, from 1974 and before. He hoped he could donate the collection to a museum in a future reunited republic of Cyprus. He was also wanting to stay in Cyprus for the rest of his life, as a civilian. Very nice guys.

cheers!

Rachel said...

Dear Témoris,

Thanks so much for your comment! I love the stories that you wrote, about the soldiers, especially collecting knick-knacks in the hopes of donating them to a museum once the country is healed -- beautiful. What sort of items were they that he found? Like, toys? Candy bar wrappers? I'm so curious!

Best,
Rachel

Anonymous said...

dear rachel,tell me anything good about the indian,bangladesh peacekeepers you have heard of since ur stay in goma.however smallest of issues are magnified and projected through leaked reports.have u ever heard of anything bad about other nations contingents.they may be at some of those things in a bigger way.have u heard of any stories of good work being done by our contingents in any agency.pl have a look at various websites and it will come out.i seriously feel there is a requirement to carry out study on contributions of peacekeepers towards helping people in congo.a difficult task indeed

Rachel said...

Dear Anonymous,

From people here (neighbors, etc), I've actually heard quite a lot of positive things about individual soldiers or even individual battalions -- regardless of nationality/country of origin. I have also heard bad things, regardless of country of origin. However, I cannot pretend I have monitored everything said -- I only offer my observations, which do not seem to correspond with yours.

Best,
Rachel

Anonymous said...

just see the monuc website and many others.there is a tendency to not to report the good deeds of military contingents.

Rachel said...

I'm really sorry that you find that to be the case... it is such a sad situation here on so many fronts... I wish that the battalions receive the support that they need in the future --

Anonymous said...

thanks for your wishes.but any way,we are programmed to do good as much as possible,be it our own country or others.armies are for people and they derive their motivation from the love and respect of people all over the globe,cutting across the frontiers.yes they may look different apparently but all professional and functional armies are alike in thinking and acting.i feel people should interact with contingents to know of jobs they are doing

Anonymous said...

good writing,although my observations were a bit harsh,but i think it comes naturally.did u see the pics?

Rachel said...

Ah! I haven't yet. I didn't know you were the same anonymous!!! I got very busy this last week -- I promise to go look at them later today or tomorrow. I'm excited to see them!

And thank you for the compliment :) I always welcome comments, harsh or not!