Peacekeepers in peril

THAT DOES IT - Korina Sanchez - The Freeman

It's not easy being a UN peacekeeper. Soldiers from different nations who are under the charter of the United Nations are required to send a military force and act as peacekeepers in usually the most conflict-ridden areas of the world. Their primary mission is to act as a buffer force between two warring factions that have agreed on a peace treaty. In other words, the forces are there to make sure conflict does not flare up once a treaty is signed. But that's easier said than done.

One of the more difficult peacekeeping missions ever taken by the UN was during the siege of Sarajevo, at a time when ethnic cleansing was at its peak. UN peacekeepers are often lightly armed, and they cannot directly engage unless called for in humanitarian situations. Oftentimes they find themselves in the middle of a full-blown war with their hands tied. Unwilling witnesses to the atrocities committed by all sides. Definitely not easy for a soldier.

The first peacekeeping mission ever to be undertaken by Philippine forces was in 1963 when the Philippine Air Force sent a squadron to support UN operations in the Congo. Since then, the country is the 30th largest contributor of peacekeepers, sending over seven hundred thirty Filipino soldiers to UN missions. The latest, of course, is the Filipino peacekeeping contingent of three hundred forty soldiers to the Golan Heights.

Last year, twenty-five Filipino peacekeepers were abducted by Syrian rebels fighting against the regime of Bashir Al Assad. They demanded Assad to withdraw his forces from the Syrian city of Jamlah. Eventually, all twenty-five soldiers were released unharmed. A suggestion that the country withdraw its whole contingent from Golan because of the worsening situation was eventually dropped, earning praise from the international community.

But once again, our soldiers find themselves in a dangerous situation. Syrian rebels, after taking hostage forty-three Fijian peacekeepers, ordered the Filipino soldiers to relinquish their arms and camp in exchange for the Fijian's freedom. Our soldiers refused, vowing to hold on to their positions. Seventy-five Filipino peacekeepers vowed to fight if necessary, and hold their ground. As of this writing, a standoff is in place. Other Filipinos from a different camp in danger of being overrun were already evacuated to safer grounds.

The bravery and courage of the Filipino soldier was never in question. When needed, they willingly allow themselves to be in harm's way. Our "Blue Berets" were at Bosnia-Herzegovina during the ethnic cleansing, and at East Timor when they gained their independence. The Golan Heights area is one of the more volatile parts of the Middle East. A truce may be existing between Israel and Syria, which our soldiers are helping to enforce. But at anytime, the inbred hatred between these two countries may flare up. There have been calls to bring home all of our peacekeepers. The soldiers themselves would prefer to carry on, until ordered otherwise. 

But aside from fulfilling their roles, the UN must also guarantee their safety as part of the agreement in sending peacekeepers. Our soldiers are on a six-month tour of duty in the Golan Heights. The current contingent is scheduled to come home this October. Let us hope they are able to. It would be wise to also study if replacements will be sent, as the situation in Syria has gone from bad to worse. We are no longer talking of Syrian rebels against President Bashir Assad, but Islamic militants, terrorists and fanatics with no respect towards human life. 

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