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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt

July 29, 2003

As the government debates whether or not to send troops to Iraq if theUnited Nationsasks for peacekeepers, the Indian Army itself seemsdivided over the subject.

What does it take to join a peacekeeping mission?In an exclusive discussion with Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt, a seniorarmy officer discusses hismission in the Horn of Africa.

Since serving officers are not allowed to publicly voicetheir opinions onsensitive topics without clearance from thedefence ministry, we accepted his request that the officer speak without being identified.

Unlike many Western nations, which prefer sending dullards, Indiansoldiers sent on UN peacekeeping missions are screenedstrictly formerit. Only the best make it. After selection, they are put througha gruelling orientation course before being deployed.

As far as I know, most Indian officers like to go on peacekeeping missions.In the last 10years I have not met anyone who has optedout except for those who had family problems.

When I was selected to join the team being sent to the Horn of Africa,I was quite delighted to accept.Our first stop was the United Services Institute, which runs a nodalagency for training and briefing peacekeepers.Among other things, welearnt about the nature of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, thetwo warring sides, some case studies ofpeacekeeping successes andfailures (like Somalia) and the UN peacekeepers code of conduct. Wewere also given lessons in diplomacy.

When you are on a peacekeeping mission, the only protection you have isthe blue (UN) helmet, we were told. 'You are an officer without arms.You are an observer of the situation, of the conflict.' And'When you see an agitated person, don't cock yourweapon. Make him your friend.Learn to livebetween warring groups.' And on our missions abroad 'we arenot an individual, we are Indian.'

Our visa, passport, insurance and other logistics were handled by theStaff Dutydirector.The United Nations insures each soldier on apeacekeeping mission for$50,000.Normally each soldier or officer is sent for a year and is paid aroundRs 7.5 lakh by the UN. The UN also takes care of tickets, missionsustenance allowance, conveyance and other expenses.

Our daily missionsustenance allowance is also supposed to take care of our food andlodgingexpenses.

Again, unlike Western soldiers, who spend heavily on food, Indianofficers easily save a part of their daily allowance by carrying rice,dal and such stuff from home to sustain his daily khana-pina.

After 20 yearsofservice,I'll have savings of around Rs 8 lakh. If one is selected for a UN peacekeeping mission,one can save the sameamountin just one year though this also depends on therank. But even a sipahi cansave Rs 2 lakhs to Rs 3 lakhs if selected.Butthose who believe Indian officers are vying to go onpeacemissions just to earn a few extra bucksare dead wrong.

Money can't buy this experience. Indian officers get access tointernational equipment, multi-national command system and an exposurewhich an ordinary soldier cannot even dream of.

When I was in Ethiopia I came in touch with soldiers and officers of47 countries, and it was a most enriching experience.I may have spent myearnings,but I still cherish my experiences.

Italy was the colonial ruler of Eritrea till 1952. Ethiopia annexed itin 1962. After 30 years of war and conflict, Eritrea earnedindependence. In April 1993 an internationally monitored referendum voted for independence,but the borders were not definedclearly.In 1997, a border commission was established. But it could not stop thewar. It is reported that between May 1998 andJune 2000some 100,000people havedied in the border clashes and millions have been spent on weaponsinstead of development.

When I was selected to monitor the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, I was morethan happy to go.

On our arrivalUN officers in Asmara, Eritrea, briefed us. Ourjob was to enforce a ceasefire along a particular section of the border,which had seen almost daily fire. We would have no administrativeback up or support.What was worse, the border was not clearlydemarcated.

There were about 1,000 Indian soldiers among the three battalionsofthe UN mission in the Horn of Africa.In Ethiopia we did not have our own guards or vehicles and had to survive with a solitary Land Cruiser. The UN mission'sregional office was in Asmaraon the other sideof the border.

In any UN peace mission, the team, consisting of 7 or 8 people, is thesmallest entity. Since they are always from various nations, differencesinlanguage, culture and the attitude to working conditionshave to be overcome. The only unifying factor is the military ethos andculture.

My team leader was from the Western African Republic of Benin, a country I knew nothing about.My other colleagues were from Bangladesh, Nepal, Russia, Malaysia, France and Zambia.

On the very first day, the revelation that I was a strict vegetariancaused much consternation.Then there those who ate pork, and thosewhose religion forbade it. We sorted out the problem by a rule of give and take. On the days thatI was supposed to cook, all of them turned vegetarian. For a few weeks, my colleagues could neither understand nor accept theconcept of vegetarian cooking.

How do you survive, they kept asking.I responded by preparing a wide array of vegetarian dishes. In a fewmonths, these differences in culture and background turned into bondsrather than barriers.

There was a high-ranking Muslim military man from Jordan in my team whowas very uneasy about serving with me. Why are Hindus against Muslims, he asked me one day.

I explained the concept ofHindustan to him and pointed out how Indiahas embraced many religions of the world. I talked about Partition and the two nation theory,and how politicianshad a narrowview ofcurrent issues.Hinduism is a way of life and nota religion, I said.In return, heexplained how Islam is not anti-woman and not at allbarbaric. Our seven hour overnight discussionturned us into strongfriends. I salutehim for making me understand Islam.

But the differences in culture are sometimes difficult to ignore.European soldiers and officers tend to sneer at thepoor Africans."Look how poor they are,how badly dressedthese guys are.Whatdirty surroundings" are common comments. Being a South Asian, I understood Africans perfectly. We both facesimilar problems.

Though we worked with an interpreter, I picked up a working knowledge of the two local languages, Tigrigna and Amharic, within a month. I wassurprised to learn that they contain many Urdu and Arabic words. I also befriended an Indian trader who rana small shop in Eritrea.

Eritreans take immense pride in their culture and tradition. Houseswere never locked, yet there were no thefts reported.The area we wereposted in was a bone of contention between the Ethiopians and the Eritreans. Ethiopians living in the area were tense over reports thatthe International Border Commission was considering therecommendation to give that region to Eritrea, and tensions ran high.We were trying to maintain the status quo till a political solutioncould be found.

But then a group of international journalists arrived at the border and the situation changed for the worse overnight.Unaware of thetensions, they went around asking the people what they felt like whenthey heardthat the area was being given to Eritrea. This inflamed thecommunity who believed that their land had already been given toEritrea.

Suddenly, the Ethiopian army restricted our movement. The border wassealed and we could not go to the head office in Eritrea. The entry ofUN teams was banned in the sensitive area, and we were completely atthe mercy of locals.Since our line of supply was closed we didn't have petrol, food or diesel. Worse, in50 degree heat we were living without water.Finally, my team leader requested me to use my goodwill with the Ethiopianmilitary commander.

It worked. "Okay, let politicians fight. Military men shouldn't,"the Ethiopian said.Risking hiscareer, he gave us a tank full ofwater and continued to supply food and wateragainst hispeople'swishes. He was duty-bound to make our life miserable, but I would liketo believe he took the risk because he trusted an Indian.

I observed many Americans in the region and found that they were verymechanical. They are so well-equipped, soperfectly trained and sowell-protected in all respectsthat they havelostthe human touch. Mostof them also had an attitude problem.

At the height of the tension, an American officer ignored warnings and decided to shoot pictures of the Ethiopian army camp from a hilltop.UN officers were allowed to take pictures, he argued. He was right, butthat didn't stop the Ethiopian army from arresting and jailing him.

Once again, my services were sought.After repeated assurances that no one would take pictures without their explicit permission, the Ethiopiancommander finally agreed to release the American. But the Americanremained unrepentant.

After our mission was over, most Western officers inour batchproceeded to tour South Africa with their savings. I rushed back home tospend it on my family.

Photograph: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images


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Number of User Comments: 3

Sub: Obviously

Its pretty obvious that no one refuses as the peacekeeping forces get paid several times more then what they get paid in India, its gives ...

Posted by Raj

Sub: Good Reading

I have allways enjoyed the writing of millitary personal , they have a rare talent to depict the situation right in front of our eyes ...

Posted by Sriram

Sub: Sheela ....The Spin Meister par excellence

Who knows for sure whether sending our troops is good for our nation/people or not ? But you on your part seem to be neither ...

Posted by Babu Prasad



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