At the beginning of last month I was summoned to the United Nations Headquarters in New York for consultations with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Field Administration & Logistics Division about the latest developments in the region and their impact on the UNIFIL mission.
Flying out of Beirut International Airport this time was a more pleasant experience and indeed a marked contrast to the days of the civil war and Israeli occupation of the city when airliners had to 'run the gauntlet' between lulls in the exchanges of artillery/mortar fire between the different warring factions and the occasional Israeli air force airstrike. Over the past twenty years I have had some frightening and equally unforgettable experiences flying into and out of Beirut.
The five hours flight to London by the British Airways Airbus A320 aircraft was uneventful and it gave me an opportunity to discuss some official business with a colleague, Mr Benon Sevan who is the UN Security Coordinator. Benon had been working in the Bekkaa Valley (between Syria and Lebanon) with some of my staff in trying to locate the body of a UN official who was kidnapped and killed by the Palestinians during the civil war. Over the years Benon had worked with our troops in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq/Kuwait, Rwanda and Lebanon and had recruited a number of our servicemen into the UN Field service. During our discussion I managed to convince him that in future he should consider recruiting a Rotuman or two as sadly there are no Rotumans in the UN Field Service or Secretariat.
New York is a fascinating city and despite my previous visits, I still find its tall skyscrapers and bright lights captivating. I was met on arrival at the JFK International Airport by a member of the Fiji Mission to the UN and driven through the early evening Manhattan heavy traffic to the Ambassador's residence at Knobbs Ferry (about 20 kms from the city centre). The Ambassador H.E. Mr Poseci Bune together with the rest of his staff and some members of the small Fijian community in New York had gathered at his residence to meet me. I was accorded the traditional Fijian ceremony of welcome (qaloqalovi and vakamamaca) and for this I felt so humble and grateful. In receiving the kamunaga (tabua) I expressed my appreciation and thanked the Ambassador and his staff for supporting our troops in all theatres of peacekeeping operations where we are presently deployed. Sadly there were no Rotumans in the gathering except for Laisa Vunibobo......... who speaks Rotuman very fluently and is proud of her maternal connection. Laisa is the daughter of the late Mue Siqila (daughter of the late Petueli and Rejieli of Korofo'ou, Lopta, Oinafa) and the late Ratu Jone Siqila of Bau Tailevu. Laisa works for one of the UN agencies in the Secretariat and has lived in New York with her husband Lui Vunibobo (son of our present Minister for Foreign Affairs) and their children Bernie and Mereoni for the last 12 years. Her auntie Marieta is living with them and it was so good to see her again after all these years as it brought back memories of my childhood days when Kava and I spent a lot of time with our mapiga in Matagi, Lopta. Marieta told me that she had travelled quite extensively throughout the US with Laisa and the family and had met many of our kainaga, particularly in the West Coast.
The UN Headquarters complex is a very dominating and impressive structure. Fiji joined the UN in 1970 following independence when we were admitted as its 127th member. Today it has about 185 member states and its founders and those who laid down its Charter should be commended for their wisdom and foresight in creating this global organisation which is charged with the principal responsibility of maintaining and preserving world peace and security.
I believe that my consultations and various meetings with the Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations and his staff together with those with the Director FALD, the Head of the Field Operations & Planning Division and the Military Adviser to the Secretary General were fruitful. Some of my very frank and forthright comments and views on a number of sensitive issues may have 'ruffled a few feathers' but then I did not go to New York to win friends and influence people. I contend that as Force Commander of the biggest and perhaps the most difficult UN Peacekeeping operation worldwide, I have an obligation to the troop contributing countries to keep their men and women whom they had entrusted under my command safe and well at all times.......whilst at the same time remain committed and focussed on implementing our mandate without any further delay.
My final appointment and meeting with the Secretary General was deferred because Mr Kofi Annan had to convene an emergency Security Council meeting to deal with the latest Saddam Hussein/Richard Butler standoff. Prior to this I had been constantly briefed about the latest developments in the Gulf and I was anxious to return to Lebanon because it is normal for all regional airports to be closed during any conflict. This last incident reminded me of the days preceding the Gulf War when I frantically tried to get Sarote and our sons out of the region. I managed to get them out of Israel into London via Paris and sent them home but was almost caught in Heathrow on my return when all flights into the region were cancelled except for those of the Israeli carrier El Al. I caught one of their last flights into Tel Aviv before the Ben Gurion International Airport was closed and a day later Saddam fired his first scud missile into the Jewish state.
At 10,000 metres above the Atlantic somewhere between New York and London I heard the good news that Saddam had 'blinked' and that President Clinton had called off the B52 bombers and cruise missile strikes against Baghdad. What a welcomed relief because whilst in NY I had initiated evacuation action for my non-essential civilian staff and dependents. The military were ordered to commence re-training and issue of nuclear/biological /chemical (NBC equipment). From my experience during the Gulf War, NBC suits and gas masks is not particularly the best order of dress for the day or night.
Whilst the UN inspectors are now back at work in Baghdad, Saddam is still defiant by refusing to fully cooperate and release a number of documents. Consequently we will have to remain on alert for any eventuality. The region is volatile enough without the Iraqi leader's latest 'pranks' which could plunge the entire region into war. In his retirement...... if he lives that long to enjoy it, Saddam should consider writing his memoirs......appropriately titled, 'The Art of Brinkmanship'.
Last weekend I had to travel to Damascus to attend a security meeting with my Australian and Canadian counterparts who are in charge of the UNTSO and UNDOF missions respectively. As I travelled from Damascus towards the Golan Heights I asked my Austrian escort officer if he could show me where Saul was smitten by the Lord before he became Paul. He knew where Ananias's house was in the outskirts of the city. Like Israel Syria is full of biblical sites. Unfortunately Assad's regime does not allow Christian pilgrims into the country so these Holy sites are unlikely to be visited at all. It is a pity. Up along the Mount Hermon range and throughout the Golan Heights, the relics and ravages of war were evident everywhere. The village of Kuneittra which was totally destroyed by the Israelis had been preserved by the Syrians as a national monument to remind future generations of the dangers and sorrow of conflict. Like Israel and Lebanon Syria is a very beautiful country and it is so sad to witness a certain degree of apprehension and uncertainty because of the state of 'no peace no war' which still exists along the entire Golan Heights.
At the beginning of this week I had to return to Beirut to attend the inauguration of the new Lebanese President. It was a solemn and no doubt very significant occasion for the state of Lebanon because it once again signified to the global community that the dark days of civil war and anarchy were over. Personally I was very happy to witness this historical event in the country's peaceful transition to democratic rule as UNIFIL had played a significant role in restoring and maintaining peace within the country. Furthermore, the new President (General Emile Lahoud had been the former Defence Force Commander) and I had worked very closely in the past and as a friend I am sure that UNIFIL will get some 'sympathetic official considerations' to some of our problems.
The return flight to my Headquarters with the Italian helicopter crew could be described as 'interesting'. The air traffic controller at the Beirut International airport had given my crew the permission to proceed south but somewhere along the coast we were suddenly contacted by the Israelis and asked to identify ourselves and descend to a specific altitude because of 'operational activities'. Normally this is a precautionary measure because of impending airstrikes. Ironically we were supposed to be flying in Lebanese airspace................. unfortunately this is the reality of the situation ........ and it is part of the 'fun of peacekeeping' in this very unpredictable and volatile region.
Yesterday (Saturday 28th November) marked the end of an important chapter in UNIFIL's history when the last contingent of the Norwegian Battalion was withdrawn from our area of operations. In a solemn and sad handover parade I farewelled the Norwegians and welcomed the new Indian Gurkha Battalion. The Norwegian government was represented by the Minister of Defence and Ambassador and the Indians by Ambassador Chaudary and members of his staff from Beirut. After 20 years of professional and dedicated service with UNIFIL the Norwegians like the Iranians, Nigerians, Dutch, Senegalese and Swedes had decided to formally end their participation with UNIFIL. As Force Commander I am concerned about a Domino effect on the whole mission .........after all UNIFIL was supposed to be an INTERIM force. For 20 years we had been trying our best to restore total peace into south Lebanon............ but there seems to be 'very little light at the end of the tunnel'.
This week the situation deteriorated with an Herzbollah offensive against the Israelis. Within a period of ten days seven Israeli soldiers were killed and a dozen more very seriously wounded. Prime Minister Netanyahu had to cut short a European visit and returned to review the situation. According to today's Jerusalem Post, the Prime Minister had tasked his Cabinet and senior military commanders to come up with an assessment aimed at finding a way out of Lebanon." It is not easy to get out of Lebanon, for the simple reason that we have been there for 20 years to protect the northern settlements. We are open to thinking in a variety of creative ways to fulfill this goal of defending the settlements and to cut down on the attacks against our soldiers" he said. General Shaul Mofaz (Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces) called on the Israeli public not to panic over the recent death of the soldiers. He confirmed that the IDF will continue to operate in Lebanon with an 'iron fist', "But we don't have any magic solution, you will have to remember that there is a price to pay for this war against Herzbollah" he added.
No one is talking about the price UNIFIL will have to pay for our continued deployment in this most volatile region. To date UNIFIL has lost 232 personnel killed in our collective search for a lasting peace. In fact there is very little positive progress towards a final peaceful solution which is acceptable to all parties to the conflict..........and it is worrying.
The only consolation is that whilst in New York I had asked the Secretary General if I could return to Fiji for a short leave break after serving 15 months in the mission area...... a request which he had agreed to, depending of course on the 'operational situation'. I believe that I needed this 'sanity break' before returning to UNIFIL in the new year to pursue this very 'elusive peace' once more. Actually I am looking forward to returning home to see Sarote and our sons together with the rest of the family and kainaga once again. I should be departing for Fiji with the last Fijian battalion rotation draft next week, situation permitting.
Before this I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge but more importantly thank all the members of the global Rotuman community for your support, best wishes and prayers. We are indebted to you and may I say, Noa'ia ma fai'aksia e hanisi.
Wish you all a very merry christmas and a bright and peaceful new year!Hanisiof and god bless!