Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 412-416
National Council for the Social Studies

Peacekeepers: Accounts from the Front

1. Interview with Lt. Col. Glen Nordick  
Canadian peacekeepers were in Cyprus for twenty-seven years. In the early period of that conflict, there was a great deal of hatred between the parties and a great deal of violence. But over the years the situation stabilized. A demarcation line was placed on the island across the entire length, with the Turks controlling the north of the line and the Cypriots controlling the south. The UN force patrolled the gap between the opposing forces. The rules and regulations governing the operation were extremely rigid, and the incidence of violence was extremely low because it had degenerated into what you would call a stalemate-a de facto division of the island. That was our peacekeeping experience for many years.

Croatia, on the other hand, and Bosnia are extremely dynamic missions; they are much closer to an actual war scenario than Cyprus. There is no front line. The United Nations Protected Areas (UNPA)-the four of them that were created inside Croatia-have Serbs and Croats inside the same area. The entire responsibility for the UN Protected Areas rests with the UN so we are in fact the law, the security force there. The situation has degenerated somewhat over the last two years because weapons have been removed from the storage bunkers. The terms of the 1990 cease fire have been violated, and there have been attacks by both sides inside the UNPA. But for the most part, the agreement made under the Vance Plan, the mandate of the UN Protection Force, is being met in Croatia.

Bosnia, on the other hand, is entirely different. Our mission there is strictly the distribution of humanitarian aid to the people of the country. This is a unique situation-probably the first time it's been done on this scale when there is not a cease-fire agreement between the two parties. In Bosnia, the UN forces on the ground have no mandate to actually stop the fighting between the various forces. All they can do is escort aid from Point A to Point B. If the convoy is fired on, they always have the right of self-defense and can fire back. For the most part, as long as the convoy is not being engaged, they are not allowed to stop or get involved in any of the fighting that is going on around them. This is not quite true for the safe havens. As the situation in Bosnia has developed, the UN has created safe havens like Srebrenica and Tuzlo. In those particular areas, the UN is the guarantor of security.

Q: It was my assumption that UN peacekeeping forces can never take offensive action in any operation. Is that correct?

That is essentially correct for the majority of the peacekeeping operations. But in Croatia it was for the first time mandated that the UN would guarantee protection of the UNPA, so we were prepared to defend it.

Q: When you do peacekeeping operations, are they done by country, or do the forces from several countries do their operations together?

It can be both. The way the UN works generally is that a battalion is assigned a sector and is responsible for everything that happens in that sector. The whole system of command within the UN comes down to who has the communications to do the job. A few nations send their people over with all their tactical equipment, enabling them to command troops on the ground. Canada is one of those countries. We never send our organizations anywhere without all the equipment necessary to provide command and control, which gives us an advantage in most of these scenarios.

Q: What about your own personal experiences?

I was the battalion commander in Croatia for six months-from the 22nd of September, and we came out of there on the 8th of April. It's been the highlight of my military career. I was over there with an 864-person battalion: men and women (eighteen women with me in the battalion-no infantry; they were all clerks, medical personnel, military police, a couple of engineers). That in itself is a war establishment organization. We had all our equipment; we worked for some very good people inside the UN over there. Most of the soldiers felt that they made a very good contribution. The support from home was nothing short of outstanding. When I say from home, I speak in the international sense, for the support was not only from Canada but from throughout the world. The media handling of our tour, the visits that we had from Germany, Japan, the United States-politicians, news people, military people-looking at the way we do peacekeeping-it all adds to that sense of satisfaction that you're doing a job. It was extremely valuable that way. Plus we did something that in my wildest dreams I never expected would happen: we came home with everyone that we went over with, which was unique in the history of the UN-to go over with that many people, go through what we went through, and then to return with everybody.

Q: How about your other peacekeeping experiences?

I had two tours in Cyprus, one in Croatia, and one during the Gulf War. All three venues were very different; my two tours in Cyprus were very different: by the time of the second tour, it had very much settled into an extremely rigid routine of effort. In both those missions there were shooting incidents. But a bad twenty-four hour day in Cyprus would be one with five incidents; on New Year's Eve in Croatia we had well over a thousand shooting incidents in one twenty-four hour period. So the scale of what went on was so totally different, it was beyond belief. In the course of six months, the battalion captured close to 900 weapons, literally tens and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The amount of weapons available to all sides in Yugoslavia is totally beyond belief.

Q: In other peacekeeping missions, has there been a disarming role?

Yes, in fact in almost all the missions, one of the functions has been either the withdrawal or the disarming of one force by another. For example, in the Iraqi desert in the UNIKOM mission, they are pulling in equipment that has been abandoned. They are destroying munitions they find out there. The amount of munitions laying out in the desert is absolutely staggering.

Q: Was your family with you?

No, inside all peacekeeping missions that Canada is involved in, if it is a six-month tour, you go unaccompanied.

Q: What about interactions with the community?

A lot of it was done. Let's talk about Croatia because it's much more important the way it works there. Interaction with the community is at several levels. Because you are responsible for the UNPA and the security of it, you deal with the local politicians, the local police, and the local military officials. Contact is on those three levels. With the civil authorities, there is what you would call "administrative duties" so you would discuss things like hooking up the power, water, sewer, roads, farming, schooling, busing-that type of thing on a fairly routine basis. Below the municipal government level, there are a lot of personal initiatives: orphanages, distribution of aid, assisting people who were destitute, helping out the UN Civilian Police-moving people from one point to another, looking for lost people.

Activity is right down to the soldier level. It is coordinated at the company platoon because a platoon may be living in the middle of a village; when we got aid from Canada-tons of stuff was sent over through the mail system, through personal donations and things-we have to make very very sure that we distribute it in an impartial manner. One of the best ways to do that and avoid all the red tape is to do it yourself. For example, we'd have a mitten day in the middle of a street and every little kid that comes by gets a pair of mittens. A lot of work is done at orphanages and old age homes. There are a lot of civilian or non-governmental agencies working in those countries doing some very excellent work. We would help them out wherever we could.

Q: How did this compare to Cyprus?

Cyprus was much more rigid. Because the division of the island had been in place for so long, there had been a refugee program to move families from the north to the south of the island. All of the refugees had been absorbed. There were no large refugee camps. So your contact between the two communities was extremely rigid. There were books and rules and regulations about exactly how to do everything. The officers had a fair amount of contact, but for the average soldier there would be almost none; outside of throwing candy to a kid from his jeep, he had relatively little contact.

Q: Is part of the mandate of peacekeeping a sense of community building or building rapport with the community?

Yes, that's extremely important. Humanitarian work is called winning the hearts and minds. You have to establish rapport with the community. The only way you can do this is by helping. For example, cleaning out a well, making sure that building material gets back into a city, taking mines out of a field that a community uses for work, rebuilding a community center, getting your medics out into the local community, and doing emergency first aid or emergency medical visits. Our dentists used to get up and set up shops in the middle of a village, bring in people, and do dental work on an ad hoc basis. A lot of things like that can go a long way. For public affairs at least once a month, I was tagged to go to a local radio station on one side or the other, and we would put on an open line talk show where they could ask questions or complain about the UN and get it from the horse's mouth: we would explain what the UN policy was and why we were doing something.

Q: What about language learning?

Some of that was done. A lot of the guys took personal language courses. We had at least ten interpreters in the battalion. Canada's multinational/ethnic makeup meant that I had five Croat- and Serb-speaking soldiers in the unit. I had some built-in interpretation capability. They were second- and third-generation people whose families had come from there, and they could speak the language.

At the checkpoints all the signs are translated into the various languages used in the area, like "You are now entering the UN Protected Area. No weapons are permitted beyond this point. Weapons found on your vehicle will be confiscated." All the confiscation forms, all the greetings, or the printed warnings are put on cards, so the soldier can put the card in the window. Hopefully, if the fellow's literate, you can get through a conversation with him. For the most part, particularly in Europe-Bosnia and Croatia-the literacy rate is pretty high. That was never a problem; making them understand is never a problem. And the soldiers do pick up a lot of the language.

Q: Do they date local girls?

Yes and no. Yes, there was some of that. Particularly in Cyprus, although there was a very rigid code in Cyprus. It's a very Mediterranean country and so dating was done in the presence of mom and dad. Anything outside of that was highly discouraged. In Croatia, there were a lot of civilians that worked outside our camp. For the most part, some of them spoke either English, German, or French. We were able to communicate with most of the people in the camps. And yes, there were some contacts made there. There were several officers who married some of the translators over there. There was some interaction with the community. It did cause us a certain amount of heartache downtown because the discos were all open. When the average salary of the country was fifty marks and our guys were going downtown with their salaries, they're rich in comparative standards. So we had the dust up in the local disco because it looked like our guys were taking the girls away all the time. But for most of our leave, the fellows went up to places like Budapest, Vienna, Italy, to get out of the country, because of the very hostile attitude in Croatia.

Q: The human rights groups talk about prostitution rings developing around the peacekeeping forces...

You have to take all that with a grain of salt, quite frankly. I would defy somebody from these organizations to go into a brothel, as a case in point, and tell who is a Croatian and who is a Serb. There is just no way to do that. Even in Cyprus. There was a ring that was active in Cyprus. It's almost like a white slavery where a girl joins a dancing troop that makes its way throughout the whole Middle East-almost like an indentured service where at the end of it she can buy her way out to another country. That happens all over the place.

So I've heard a lot about this. I didn't see it in Croatia. There were discos, all kinds of bars in Zagreb-pretty hard to tell. I really don't know what is going on.

What you've really got to be careful of-and this is something I've got to say-all sides go out of their way, one side to discredit the other. They will use any means, anything to discredit the other side of the argument. They spend an inordinate amount of time convincing you that their position on a given argument is the only correct position. They don't understand the role of impartiality. We walk a fine line-we refuse to accept a side of an argument. From my own experience, there is no single party in that country who is innocent. I'm talking about wherever we've been. There's no simple solution to a given problem. There's no right and wrong.

Q: Could you clarify that more?

Let's use Croatia as a specific case in point. I dealt only with the Croats and the Serbs. There were no Muslims there to speak of. From my perspective, from a world perspective looking at it from a fairly western mind, the Serbs are seen as the aggressor inside Croatia. From my experience there, there are no innocent parties. Both sides are equally guilty of atrocities, crimes, and having an intent to subdue the other. As a peacekeeper I went in there with an impartial viewpoint; I didn't accept anything at face value. You have to look for an ulterior motive in whatever is being said. I found that both sides spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to discredit the other. They would go out of their way to find an incident that would put the other party in a bad light. Or put the UN in a bad light. Let me give you a specific instance. The Croats complained for months that the Serbs were mortaring them from the hills in a town called Lipic. We did everything to try and track down these mortars. We heard the explosions, but from the crater analysis we couldn't determine where these things were coming from. Finally, we got there one day immediately after one of these incidents happened. Lo and behold, we found an exploded charge. What had been happening is that the Croats had been setting off charges to make them look like 100 mm mortars going off inside their own towns and villages, and blaming it on the Serbs. Because we had no radar, no way of tracking the rounds, because we were hearing the explosions, we had to guess at what was happening. The Croats were deliberately attempting to convince the UN that the Serbs had not put their weapons in storage and were continuing to shell them as a pretext for bringing their own artillery and their own army back into the UNPA. Mass graves-we found mass graves throughout our own area. From our own investigations using the RCNP and the people from the UN Civilian Police that were in the theater with us, we know that both sides are equally guilty of some pretty tremendous atrocities.

It's a very difficult position in which to remain impartial. I'm convinced that both parties expected that they would be able to convince the UN that their side was correct. Then they found out that's not so simple. The UN is extremely impartial. It has not been subverted by propaganda. Then the backlash begins saying that the UN is not doing its job because you are not supporting my position, you're in the wrong. And both sides appear that way. That's the way my Sector Commander, an Argentinean General, used to say: "As long as both sides are angry at you, you must be walking on the middle."

Q: What thoughts would you like to leave with our readers?

The oddest part about peacekeeping is that peacekeeping is both a political and a military function. It's not just the guy with the blue helmet standing on the Observation Point out there. There is a political process that supports peacekeeping that is just as important.

The politicians have to make the decisions that affect the peacekeeping soldier on the ground. The mandate that the soldier has is built by the politician, not by the military. We make the recommendations as to what we think we have. But the political approval for that mandate-whether you are attacked by guns, or fire back when someone attacks, or take offensive action to solve the problem-those are political, not military decisions. Particularly in the context of the UN. So the military and the politicians are married in a mission-and sometimes you don't realize that when you are looking at missions from the outside. The blue helmets and the political talks that are going on in Geneva or UN New York are sometimes seen as two different problems, but in fact they are the same problem.

2. U.S. Soldiers as UN Peacekeepers in Somalia
"We practice going to war all the time here," comments Joe Hitt as he drives his Ford Ranger to the location in Fort Lewis, Washington, where two U.S. Army soldiers who had been part of the UN Peacekeeping mission in Somalia were waiting for us. This is the headquarters of the First Corps, which is in charge of several divisions with units stationed in forty-eight of the fifty states.

Passing a number of soldiers-both male and female-taking a break, or having a smoke, we were escorted into a bare room with a ping pong table and a set of plastic covered sofas. We were soon joined by Sergeant First Class Bobby Roberts and Staff Sergeant Gloria Josey who both returned on Christmas Day 1993 from a three-month tour of duty in Somalia as part of the 40th Transportation Company whose job it was to deliver fuel and water to the other UN peacekeeping troops (from Bangladesh, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, and Pakistan) stationed there after the large U.S. force returned to the States.

Roberts, a soldier for fourteen years, joined the army when he was 17 years old. Although he had served in Germany, this was his first tour in a combat zone. His time in Somalia was filled with daily training for mine awareness, convoy defense, reactions to ambush before taking a convoy of trucks to the determined destination. "My biggest worry was making a judgment call-you couldn't tell who was the enemy. Guerrilla soldiers were wearing civilian dress.

"We lived in a compound, an old abandoned factory, that was done over to accommodate our company of 187 soldiers. We never had contact with the nearby village that we could see from the compound. It was a friendly village though. They would warn us if someone was going to try and attack us-sometimes they would catch the person and hold him till we got there.

"It took some getting used to, as other countries' rules of engagement are totally different from ours. We had to make sure that our signals were all coordinated among the different troops so that we weren't sending out or receiving messages that were misunderstood. We were to depend on the French for security beyond the compound walls when sniping or stone throwing occurred."

Gloria Josey, a veteran of the Gulf War where she served in Saudi Arabia, spoke of how different the Somalia assignment was. "I knew about the humanitarian needs from the news before I went, but I thought the food had already gotten there and that that problem was solved. I was wrong. There were still plenty of babies with big stomachs and open sores and children and women who were skin and bones that I never expected to see. We weren't supposed to give them any water, but I did anyway, if our truck ever got stopped or stuck. It was 120 degrees out there and I was driving a whole truckload of water.

"Saudi Arabia was much different. You weren't confined to the compound so you could go out and visit a friend if you wanted to. But in Somalia my fear turned to anger. We were there to help but were getting stones thrown at us. It was especially hard seeing the body bag of a young mother getting sent back to the States for burial."

There were about fifty women in the U.S. company but no other females in the UN peacekeeping forces from the other countries. "Other countries don't allow their female soldiers into war zones," continued Srgt. Josey. "Maybe that was why the U.S. females were so well liked and photographed." One Bangladeshi soldier, upon learning that she liked pork soon returned with the bodies of two pigs, freshly killed, for her to take back to the compound for dinner. She realized it was important to accept them from him, but the pigs never did make it back.

Source: Interview conducted on February 14, 1994, at Fort Lewis Army Base, Washington

3. Steps in a Peacekeeping Operation

  • 4. Quotes from Peacekeepers
    A frustration of peacekeeping is meeting people who are not willing to make peace with themselves.

    UN peacekeeper in Croatia.

    As long as both sides are angry with you, you're walking the middle road.

    UN peacekeeping commander to his assistant in Croatia.

    I did not learn much prior to my arrival in Somalia. We got the basics. However, nothing that I learned or saw on TV prepared me for what I saw there. The level of devastation, destruction, and despair in the country, at least in the Mogadishu area, was appalling.

    U.S. soldier in Somalia.

    Peacekeeping is a shining example connected with the Canadian military. Canadians have been involved in every UN peacekeeping mission to date. It is ingrained into the Canadian fabric of life.

    UN peacekeeper in Croatia.

    When you raise your hand to be sworn in as a UN peacekeeping soldier, don't take that responsibility lightly. It's a life and death matter out there, and you just might be coming home in a body bag.

    Staff Sergeant Gloria Josey, UN peacekeeper from the United States in Somalia.

    In a war situation there are no innocent parties. All sides are guilty. As a peacekeeper focused on being neutral, you learn to accept nothing at face value.

    Lt. Col. Glen Nordick, UN peacekeeper from Canada in Croatia.

    I have the advantage of not believing that the hatred between the communities is so great that reconciliation is impossible. I believe peace is possible and that those responsible must be assisted in finding the terms. While awaiting this political solution, we must do everything possible to ease the suffering of the population.

    Lt. Gen. Philippe Morillo, UN Commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

    The financial threats to 1994 peacekeeping operations are like a permanent Damocles sword that is hanging over the activities of the UN.

    Special Advisor to the Secretary General.

    To remain calm in the face of provocation, to maintain composure when under attack, the United Nations troops, officers and soldiers alike, must show a special kind of courage, one that is more difficult to come by than the ordinary kind. Our United Nations troops have been put to the test and have emerged triumphant.

    UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

    The international community gets a good deal when it "borrows" a nation's soldiers for peacekeeping duties. Soldiers rarely question what they are ordered to do until the job is finished. Their loyalty deserves to be repaid from the top. The UN's role and responsibilities are expanding at a dramatic rate, and peacekeeping is a growth industry. It wouldn't take a major effort for the world body to improve significantly the command, control, and logistical support of the people doing the dirty work.

    Peacekeeper: The Road to Sarajevo
    by Major General Lewis MacKenzie, Canadian peacekeeper.

    I pray to God for the Somali people, that they will build some kind of society based on love instead of the gun... If they do that, I know the lives we have lost here will not have been in vain.

    Major General Thomas Montgomery, U.S. peacekeeper.

    UN peacekeepers are well paid. We spent a lot of money there. It's a poor country. It's obscene how well we were treated sometimes.

    UN peacekeeper in Namibia.

    It was the highlight of my military career. I still correspond with Russians, Chinese, French, Norwegian, and other peacekeepers from the countries with whom I served.

    Major Roger B. McMaster, U.S. peacekeeper serving on the Sinai Peninsula.