Sunday, March 10, 2013

Syrian rebel forces release 21 Filipino peacekeepers in Jordan

When Syrian rebels snatched 21 Filipino peacekeepers four days ago, everyone who learned of the bad news was stunned. 

We were still recovering from the dramatic confrontation with Malaysian security forces and Filipino warriors in nearby Sabah, when the news came that our gallant peacekeepers were captured in a village called Al-Jamla, Syria.

I woke up reading the news sent through email by UNDOF's Chief of Staff, Filipino hero Colonel Cirilito Sobejana. 

His short email said: "I'm in Amman, Jordan now with the 21 Filipino UN peacekeepers who were held hostage by the rebels. They are all in good shape and in high spirits. We'll head back to the Golan soonest to continue perform our mandate of maintaining peace and stability in the buffer zone of Syria and Israel. Thank you for all your prayers and support."

I felt relieved by the news. I knew that anything bad could happen because there were sporadic clashes around the area right after their abduction.

I also personally doubt if  the video statements read by some of the captured Filipinos were freely given. Then, their release was delayed despite the earlier promises given to the negotiators. 

 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the release of the detained peacekeepers.

 "All sides in the Syrian conflict must respect the impartiality of UNDOF which monitors a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel in the strategic Golan plateau," he said.

UNDOF Mandate

According to its internet publication, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established by Security Council resolution 350 (1974) of 31 May 1974 to:
  • Maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria;
  • Supervise the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces; and
  • Supervise the areas of separation and limitation, as provided in the May 1974 Agreement on Disengagement.
Since its activation over four decades ago, the mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months. 

Named Camp Farouar, ts headquarters is located in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Presently, there are 89 established military positions here, with all the peacekeeping Contingents being represented. 

Likewise, there are one hundred and twenty civilians both International Staff and locally-hired staff.

The peacekeepers' actions were adversely affected by the ongoing civil war within Syria. The skirmishes had spread to the countryside and nearer to the ceasefire line where the peacekeepers were stationed. 

According to UN Secretary General Ban-ki-Moon, the continued presence of UNDOF was essential due to the volatile situation in the Middle East.

In a statement, he said that: "The peacekeeping force was likely to remain so, unless and until a comprehensive settlement covering all aspects of the Middle East problem was reached."

'Surrender' questioned

I have read so many criticisms about the soldiers' decision to 'surrender' to the heavily-armed rebel forces. How I wish these armchair warriors will have the chance to work in conflict zones as peacekeepers.

While they are allowed to use force to defend themselves, the peacekeepers are duty bound to strictly observe the restrictive Rules of Engagement taught to them during their pre-deployment training.

It is also important to understand the nature of UNDOF, one of the classic UN peacekeeping forces which is dubbed as an 'interposition force', being tasked to hold the ground located in between two armies (Syria and Israel) in a contested territory (Golan Heights). It is not designed as a fighting force like the other peacekeeping forces like UNIFIL (Lebanon) and the former UNOSOM (Somalia).

Soldiers who are assigned as peacekeepers are made to strictly observe the restrictions on what it can do based on the mandate of UNDOF. 

It should be noted that despite the bloody civil war in Syria, the UN Security Council has not changed the mandate and purpose and composition of a force.

The wise critics who said that our soldiers are 'cowards' must understand the very purpose of UNDOF: To monitor and patrol the Golan Heights. 

Also, the Filipino peacekeepers are lightly armed and are not involved in Syria’s separate uprising against Assad’s government.

Considering the above-mentioned circumstances, they did what I think was right. If I was the leader of that lightly armed patrol that was surrounded by by overwhelming number of gun-toting rebels, I will opt to peacefully surrender.

But, I will not do the same as a Scout Ranger fighting the Abu Sayyaf or the NPA bandits. That is the difference.

Modern heroes

There are over 110,000 men and women of the United Nations deployed in conflict areas around the world, representing 120 UN member countries including the Philippines.  

Included in the long list of jobs for UN Peacekeepers are: help in training the local police force, disarm the former combatants, support elections and assist in building State institutions.

Peacekeeping missions come with the risk of being caught in the middle of the conflict. As an unarmed UN Military Observer in South Sudan, I was among those who were held for hours by a young Captain of the Sudanese Armed Forces who misunderstood our job as a neutral element in fostering peace in their land.

During the early years of our country's UN deployment in Haiti, we also lost one soldier who was killed by gunmen while he was performing his duties.

In giving tribute to all peacekeepers, Ban said: "Thanks to their (peacekeepers') efforts, life-saving humanitarian assistance can be delivered and economic development can begin."

The Filipino peacekeepers are still our modern-day heroes. They deserve our warm welcome.

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