I was going through my routine office mail when my eyes darted across a letter for my selection in UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It felt like someone had bewitched the clocks to a standstill as I sat there in utter silence while my brain went through a rollercoaster of emotions, excitement, and the inextricably linked apprehensions all at the same time. What do you do in a situation like this? You call those truly near to your heart. So, I picked up the phone and called my mother who was elated to hear the news and exclaimed in sheer happiness. This unexpected outpour of emotions from her made me forget any apprehension and console her instead. My father, a proud ex-gunner also congratulated me. After hanging up, and with the ebbing of the emotional tide, the realization of the situation suddenly dawned upon me. I will tell you what happens with most, if not all the women donning the khaki when confronted with the proposition of a foreign deployment. Apprehensions overtake sheer excitement as you realize you will be away from your family and a toddler in a remote country for a year! Your feminine and maternal instincts kick in where you start feeling guilty for being happy knowing you will be leaving behind your husband and children. Nobody is immune to these feelings, but when duty calls, the soldier responds!
I am from the Army Corps of Signals, proudly wearing the khaki since 2010. The prospect of representing my country and Armed Forces in fulfillment of the noble UN peacekeeping mandate in Congo made me feel utterly grateful and honoured. I was selected to perform duties as a Military Public Information Officer (MPIO) with the sector HQ of United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), and I can say it with immense pride that it has been one of the most comprehensive and rewarding experiences of my life.
Prior to my deployment, I was given ample training in wide ranging topics spanning diversity, management, and leadership from the prestigious Centre of International Peacekeeping Studies (CIPS, NUST), and in the technical role of information operations from ISPR Directorate. I went through detailed medical scrutiny and physical fitness tests to ensure prime health before departure. Administratively, I was part of an infantry battalion and spent the first few months with them.
Finally, on the departure date as I waved goodbye to my husband and toddler to board the plane, I was overcome with a deep sense of responsibility towards my country and profession. The participation of women in the military and United Nations peacekeeping missions is relatively low. We were 16 women peacekeepers aboard that flight, each with a different story, a different role and background, but all united nevertheless in our resolute will to serve with utmost zeal and zest and to the best of our abilities. Women’s participation in peacekeeping operations is still relatively a new change in terms of acceptance, even in UN peacekeeping and we resolved to go the extra mile in proving our competence while discharging duties traditionally attributed to males. The ‘girls in blue helmets’ were on their way. The bond weaved on-board that plane remains strong to this very day.
DRC, albeit war-torn, is a country blessed with absolute natural beauty. The people, especially women are intelligent, hardworking, resilient, and hopeful for a brighter future of their country that has been marred by conflict for decades. Upon landing and moving further to our first camp in Uvira, I could not help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for the blessings that we take for granted in our own country — the blessings of freedom, of abundance, of life. This is the single, most revered revelation one feels upon seeing a country so full of potential, yet so poor and it renewed the sense of gratitude for my homeland.
In our initial days we went on frequent foot patrols, and that provided me the opportunity to see the Congolese life up-close. It gave me a good gauge of the social fiber and psychological leanings of the local population that helped me later in managing the information environment. Pakistani contingents have been part of MONUSCO since 1960s and the people of Congo are generally respectful towards the peacekeepers. One of my most vivid memories in Uvira is of the massive floods that caused havoc in the town. I was part of the peacekeeping responders that helped evacuate people from flood-stricken areas, gave them food and shelter and helped them rebuild. I witnessed first-hand, humanity serving humanity irrespective of race, creed, or religion.
After moving to sector HQ in Kavumu, I assumed my duties as the sector MPIO. I found the new role to be demanding, yet enjoyable. We undertook several initiatives to highlight the contributions of peacekeepers in our sector through newsletters, digital events, and awareness campaigns through local and international media outlets. We increased local engagement through improved digital footprint over wide ranging media platforms, and were called the trendsetters for our innovative initiatives and speedy execution. We were highly appreciated for our work by MONUSCO Force HQ and UN HQ alike. Professionally, it was a demanding task, but I found the training imparted by Pakistan Army to be of great value as it helped me navigate the intricacies of the media and information domain. I found myself to be well-trained and well-groomed to operate effectively in a diverse global workspace with the technical prowess to discharge my duties effectively. Our international colleagues from other militaries were often pleasantly surprised and in awe of the professional acumen displayed by the Pakistani Lady Officers. All in all, I gained invaluable exposure as an MPIO.
My UN experience without the mention of COVID-19 would be an incomplete one. I have the travel bug in me, and had made elaborate plans to visit Africa and Europe during the holidays, but COVID-19 had different plans. Congo was not hit hard, but the pandemic was raging throughout the world during our tenure in Congo. Resultantly, our stay was extended without leave so homesickness kicked in hard. I remember feeling completely helpless for not being able to fly to Pakistan when my son met an accident and went through surgery. During that difficult time, I found the immense support of family, colleagues, and seniors to be my guiding and comforting light. My morale never faltered owing to the support and encouragement from my fellow and senior Pakistani officers.
To sum it up, the experience of being a female UN peacekeeper was an amazing one. It made me grow professionally and personally, and I emerged stronger out of it. As with all things in life, nothing is ever good or bad, but thinking makes it so! Being away from your homeland is taxing, but doing so for a noble cause makes it worthwhile. I had the unflinching support from my family, friends and Pakistan Army throughout my stay that made the experience a cherishable one. To me the support at home from my husband was also a source of comfort during my stay in Congo. I wish upon all the hardworking ladies of Pakistan Armed Forces for the opportunity to serve as girls in blue helmets, to serve their motherland, to serve humanity. Towards the end, I would like to remind the readers that most of us have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness; it is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy cause. Serving your motherland and humanity in a war-torn country is one such cause, and I shall always feel immensely grateful and proud for having been provided that opportunity. HH
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