Maj Dr Fakiha Salman recounts the challenges, joy and pride of serving as a UN Peacekeeper
Ivividly remember the day I received the letter of selection as part of Female Engagement Team on UN peacekeeping mission in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Seeing the letter put me in a state of dilemma; on one hand, I was feeling excited and proud to be amongst the few bestowed with the privilege of serving and representing Pakistan on world stage and on the other hand, the mother in me was really apprehensive at the prospect of leaving behind her children for a whole year. It was my husband whose support and affirmation gave me the confidence to go ahead, and I can safely say that not only did this decision prove to be a benchmark in my military career, but it also strengthened our bond as a family. Having looked after my children alone on numerous occasions while my husband served his nation on borders, in Siachen and Waziristan, this was the first time my children were to see their mother going on service in a war-torn zone. It came as a surprise to me when my 12-year-old was the one boosting my morale and my seven-year-old putting on a brave face despite being uncertain herself about the upcoming days without their mother around.
With all these mixed feelings I packed my bags. It was first day of Eid-ul-Azha, I remember. I hugged and left my children under Allah's protection and husband’s care, and joined the convoy going to Islamabad Airport. The four-hour journey from Kharian garrison to Islamabad airport was spent in a state of daze. I was looking outside the window at the roads of my beloved country, which I was soon to leave for lands unknown. The thought of how my children were coping already started flooding in. I realised that I really was going to leave when we reached Islamabad airport and I saw my fellow countrymen clad in CCD uniform, holding official passports, ready to embark on a mission to serve and represent our homeland abroad.
The flight to DRC was a long haul, with transit at Jeddah airport. We finally arrived at Goma airport in the early hours of 2nd August. When the door of our plane opened and we were allowed to disembark, reality hit. Having lived a privileged life in our home country, here we were in a war-torn country. Male or female, senior or junior, we all had to carry our own luggage down the sketchy stairway and trudge along the long unpaved path leading to the waiting area at Goma airport only to find out that there was nothing but a tented area with no seating whatsoever for officers and soldiers. Having left behind the sparkling and modern Islamabad airport just 12 hours ago, the poor conditions of Goma airport gave us another reality check. No matter where we stand on the world map, we are nothing but a blessed nation with bustling cities, abundant resources, and enthusiastic masses ready to take on the world.
Serving in DRC during peak COVID-19 time had its own set of challenges. There were multiple COVID-19 tests and mandatory quarantines. Having to live in confined spaces for 14 days was not an easy task, but we all took it in stride. Getting to know each other in a foreign land away from our families, we lifted each other’s morale, shared many meals together and enjoyed board games, watched movies and listened to songs that reminded us of our beloved country. There were endless chats and calls with family back home as well as orientation sessions about our upcoming tasks. Once our quarantine period was over, we were driven to our respective duty places. The hours long bumpy drive as part of convoy was our first insight into the Congolese population. Living in poor, destitute conditions with no infrastructure and government, the plight of the Congolese was obvious. At the same time, the beauty of the land mesmerised us: lush green vegetation, huge lakes, and tropical forests is what makes up the land of DRC. It was a pleasant surprise for our eyes.
After being welcomed into our units by our seniors and colleagues we eased into the routine. Our job description required us to keep frequent interactions with Congolese community, especially women and children. We organised such engagements as part of Female Engagement Team constituting of doctors, nurses, psychologists, educationists, gender advisers, and occupation therapists. It was an overwhelming feeling to see bright faces and broad smiles of local women and children on such interactions. They always had questions at end of the sessions and our team eagerly responded to their queries. Another one of our tasks was to carry out long-range patrols (LRPs). It was also a very unique experience for us female officers wearing blue helmets. We distributed pamphlets and raised awareness amongst population regarding sensitive topics like child soldier, impact of addiction on a community, gender-based violence, etc. Being a doctor, I had an additional task of looking after medical affairs and attending to medical emergencies in our area of responsibility (AOR). We worked round the clock to cater to routine medical needs of our patients as well as carried out smooth evacuations of medical emergencies to higher level setups.
Next came the challenge of vaccinating our contingent with COVID-19 vaccines. It was a huge responsibility keeping in mind the vulnerability of transportation of vaccines and the number of people to be vaccinated. We were successfully able to vaccinate our contingent with first and second shots within our given timeline. It was an important task to carry out considering the frequent incoming and outgoing flight schedules and movement of troops. Other few challenges that we faced were in the form of natural calamities like the flooding of Lake Tanganyika and gradual receding flood waters that impacted the logistic support. Not only our messing and accommodation was flooded, but we also had to be wary of hazards of waterborne illnesses. However, by the grace of Almighty those few difficult weeks also passed, and we were ready to rebuild our morale and space we called home. Soon we were able to relax on the shores of Lake Tanganyika while lounging around on a beautiful newly renovated jetty. Near the end of our tenure, we were yet again faced with another challenge, this time it was the eruption of the volcano Nyiragongo at Goma. This was a time when we opened our hearts and HQ for our colleagues deployed at FHQ Goma. It was again a tough time and a challenging situation that we faced during our stay at DRC.
One year while serving in DRC passed in blink of an eye. Sure enough, the first flight out from the Pakistan was the toughest. After that our flights home to visit family were the most ecstatic and cherished memories. I can never forget the exhilaration we felt on the sight of ‘green tail’ of our national carrier PIA every time it arrived at Goma airport.
During our tenure at DRC, we had interaction with individuals of other nationalities. Besides working together, we shared a deeper bond. Our Uruguayan colleagues showed up one day with home baked goodies along with the demand for mehndi tattoos. One of our Egyptian colleagues became so fond of gulab jamans and biryani that she decided to treat herself to whole dishes of the dessert and savoury. We had to remind her of the shock she was about to get later on the weighing scale if she continued. Our Indonesian colleagues brought us beautiful batik dresses. In exchange they loved the hand embroidered scarves we gifted them. Interaction with the Chinese at CEC was quite frequent as they warmly welcomed us with their traditional tea and snacks whenever we showed up for a boating trip at their engineering company. We spent many beautiful evenings at the scenic site and still hold dear the stuffed pandas and Chinese porcelain dolls they gifted us. The culminating event of our tenure was a joint parade involving Pakistani, Indonesian, Chinese, and Uruguayan contingents. It was the perfect way to end our tenure, and to receive our UN medals on such a prestigious occasion.
Before embarking on the UN mission, I had promised my daughters to show them some parts of the beautiful continent of Africa. Now, it was time to fulfill that long awaited promise. We were blessed to enjoy visa exempted family trip into South Africa, thanks to UN employee status. The beautiful beaches, amazing safaris, and adventurous excursions during the following few weeks in South Africa with my family made up for the lost family time in the previous year. Deployment at DRC as part of UN peacekeepers force gave me the confidence and strength to take on any daring challenges the world has to offer. One day, I hope to see my daughters following the same footsteps and serve humanity wherever it requires them to be at! HH
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