There are a lot of efforts around the world to define, analyse and build-up proposals on crucial issues such as conflict prevention, peacebuilding, post-conflict reconstruction, and approaches to the deep roots of conflicts, the passage from humanitarian assistance to development, human security, responsibility to protect and many other important concepts.
Although this contribution is written in my personal capacity, not reflecting at all the views of the Organization for which I have worked now for more than 30 years, I cannot but thank the United Nations for giving me the opportunity to participate in the reflections and draft policy elaboration around the above notions.
I would like to share a wonderful experience of love, sacrifice and devotion, beyond any particular faith or belief, raising spontaneously from the heart of members of troops in South and North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while serving in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).
As part of my United Nations responsibilities, I also teach classes in the pre-deployment training of Uruguayan troops participating in MONUSCO and despite encountering many soldiers who have participated in several missions, I have the opportunity to interact with very young people going there for the first time.
They come from poor households, have basic education and often join the Armed Forces as an opportunity to earn their livings and frequently to escape from environments of criminality surrounding them.
Many of them ask me in which part of Africa is the DRC, whether it is hot or cold and if it rains or snows. They are happy and decided to undertake this new challenge and to contribute to the United Nations by providing security to this distant country.
We try to explain them the reality they are going to face, the different vulnerabilities of the local populations, the lack of many things which for them – despite being very poor – are normal like free education and health or access to safe water for instance, and they start to understand that beyond the possibility of earning an extra wage and patrolling, there other challenges waiting for them there.
I must confess that these young women and men soldiers amaze me every day and make me thank God again and again for their courage, commitment, goodness and their capacity of putting themselves in the place of others. Many of them tell me “we are poor as they are, so we understand them better than others”.
I could expand here on many stories, dealing with their courage and devotion risking their lives to protect civilian populations in places like Pinga or Kimua in North Kivu, providing also food and medical assistance to them, or formerly in the year 2003 in Bunia, Ituri, when they even forwarded their combat rations to the people they were trying to protect.
These acts of courage and solidarity many times bring them problems since they violate the United Nations regulations concerning the allocation of responsibilities among the components of a mission but they prefer to be reprimanded or punished rather than deprive children, women and men of the basic means of subsistence.
I will not refer to those issues here. I will rather talk about their commitment to improving the everyday life of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo in which they work hand in hand with Church organisations.
One of this experiences refers to their support to an orphanage of handicapped children mainly from polio sequels which appertain to the association Debout et Fier (Stand Proud) in Goma. They not only provide daily food, water and medical supplies as well medical assistance but also support their skills for building their own prostheses, learning crafts and basic construction techniques to repair the building and also recently training them to play football and organize a team that plays matches against soldier teams.
They carry out a similar work with the Don Bosco youth center in Goma where they also committed to supporting a football school to give young people an opportunity of recreation and enthusiasm. It is encouraging how these young soldiers start feeling part of the Don Bosco’s efforts and projects without having heard at all of the Saint or even proclaiming themselves as non believers.
The Uruguayan troops in North Kivu are also involved in the work of Sister Albera, a Carmelite nun from Ecuador that founded a place, Love Flames, to receive orphans victims of the conflict giving them a place to recover hope and opportunities for the future.
They also accompany the work by Georgette, a sister appertaining to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who founded Tulizeni (“consolation”) which hosts pregnant teens victims of rape giving them comfort and hope and make them wish to deliver their babies and care for them.
What I would like to share is not only the support given by the soldiers through food, water, medicines, voluntary work, teaching of many crafts, but also their emotional engagement towards the people and the causes being promoted in those places.
They really develop a strong bond, they start caring for the children and teenagers as if they were their own family and they suffer deeply and even cry when they have to say good bye because it is time for them to go back to Uruguay for a new contingent to take over.
When we talk with them after they have come back they express their feelings of vacuum and their missing those people they left there. They wish to go back to continue to be part of the work of those who devote their lives for others welfare and while in Uruguay they organize campaigns so as to collect what may be helpful for the work of the sisters and priests in charge of the places.
They proudly show you the pictures, naming the children and youth and recalling specific stories of each one. They also tell us that they started to teach them Spanish and that the kids are interested in Uruguay and our traditions.
Amidst so many challenges faced by the international community in connection with the outcome of peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts and the every day threats to peace and stability in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the fact that a peacekeeping operation beyond its traditional purposes gives space to stories as the one I tried to share here, shows that support and hope can be given in small spaces and initiatives through the strength given by God to everyone, whether they believe in Him or not. In the end, they are starting to know Him through their actions and living, without being really aware, an experience of faith through their brothers and sisters which is what really matters.
Carmen Artigas, Pax Christi International Board Member