Life was on a steady path with a swirl of hectic routines. Did I just say hectic? I guess I did. I realized the true meaning of this word when I was heading home from my duty station to attend a family wedding. I received a phone call that I had been selected for a peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). At the time, I did not even notice how many kilometers we drove and how much my kids quarreled and poked one another while I was telling my husband about this sudden development and checking on my fellow officers who would be accompanying me on this mission. From here on, the ‘hectic’ unleashed itself: little time and lots to do! Skipping details, I am on D-day with a mix of emotions; butterflies in my stomach, anxiety of leaving my kids behind, regular worries of a mom with a ton of instructions wrapped in incentives for the kids. After a long journey, finally we landed at Bujumbura International Airport (BJM), Burundi. As I stepped out of the plane, a gush of warm humid wind and equatorial sun welcomed me to Africa. From there, we set off on our road journey to DRC, which came as a huge shock in the form of bumpy tracks. By this time, my mind had lost track of time and space. In the haze of memory comes a sparkling body of water, Lake Tanganyika, at the brink of our camp. Now, I could see the real beauty of Africa. As it came to be, clear blue skies and crystal waters were our only escape from the disturbing homesickness.
The time was passing at a steady pace with our community engagement activities. Swahili being absolutely foreign to me, sometimes I felt that I had lost my own language. I had all the motivation and enthusiasm to serve humanity in a better way so the language hindrance could not stop us. Over time, we came to terms with these bumpy roads and daily work activities and life was good with the feeling that we are here for a cause, we are here for peace, with multiple video calls to those back home as a motivational push.
Things started to feel a little concerning as information about COVID-19 started circulating. Orders were released that there would be restricted troop movement for indefinite period, closed air space and borders were like a punch to the gut. This proved to be the most distressing time of our mission. We thought everything came to a halt but ours was a quest that saw no stopping in helping humanity. Even in the military, nothing ever goes as planned. However, with the pandemic at our doorstep, we had to develop backup plans as further backups. Time flew as we were busy putting in place all the new SOPs and community awareness was carried out on ground, through radio and printed material. I was hanging between the pendulum of expectation and anticipation. Expecting that everything is going to be fine and anticipating a long wait to go home. Nature had its plans and we encountered seasonal flash floods. Despite being underwater ourselves, our team worked relentlessly to serve flood-devastated people in the locality. Pakistani peacekeepers left no stone unturned for the assistance and rehabilitation of the local community.
Soon the wheel of life took a nudge with “the new normal” in place.
Five months had passed by when we heard the news that the airspace was being opened and there would be partial movement of rotation flights. Despite sounding too good to be true, we geared up our momentum once again. During this time, we had to face effusive emotions, uncertainty and fear of many what ifs. With mixed emotions and loads of prayers, we witnessed the historical landing of our National flag carrier Boeing-777 at Goma International Airport.
Patriotic feelings gushed through our veins at the mere sight of the green tail. Gleaming faces and the innocent joy of going home felt like an unexplainable treat. Although just a few out of us were being repatriated, we were happy for their bliss and held our ground with the thought that one day we will be going home too. I dreaded that time would pass slowly, but our daily weight loss resolution that was overshadowed by tasty treats brought to us by foreign friends made it a lot easier. One of the cherished memories includes a foreign lady officer who was extremely fond of gulab jamans. As every host would do, we got her a dish of special juicy, warm gulab jamans. As much as she loved those little balls of sweetness, we had to ultimately intervene and warn her of the consequences upon her sixth piece going down the gullet. I can still vividly recall the somber expression on her face when she stepped on the weighing machine after four days of eating gulab jaman, barfi, paratha, and biryani. The love for desi food was showing its colours. We shared similar expressions on the weighing machine after munching on a box of butterscotch short cakes made by another foreign friend. These little evil delicacies had us guilty of having sweet tooth preferences. Time went along with little moments of happiness revealing from time to time in form of foreigners’ love for mehndi, Pakistani dupattas and dresses.
Listening to the same playlist daily after dinner while trying to burn a few nano-calories as the last resort to fitness regime is my most revered time at the camp. Months passed and weeks went by while I stood in front of the calendar, counting days to go back home. Girls were enthusiastically packing and preparing for the flight. Homecoming has never been so exciting. We all were emotional, in a good way.
The cool wintry breeze with the fragrance of Pakistan’s soil that hit us when we landed is perhaps the most soothing of all perfumes. Kids had waited 365 days for a mommy hug and here, the mission ends, but the memories remain forever. The satisfaction that I have done my part for peace and humanity made it all worthwhile. I am grateful to God that He made me sail through the toughness of this mission during a pandemic with everyone safe back home. My heart remains filled with gratitude to our fellow countrymen for riding out this deployment with us, for loving us, and for remembering Pakistan Armed forces in their prayers. HH
The writer served as a UN Peacekeeper in DR Congo as a Military Gender Advisor and Child Protection Officer.
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