Unit 3
Reading Passage
  What is it like to go on a UN Mission?

UN Staff remember UN Missions

Rodrigo’s Memory of the Mission in Somalia  (click to hear Rodrigo describe his mission)   
      It was March of 2017 and I was on a training mission to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM).
      The country had been through many years of conflict and terrorist violence and it had been struck by drought and famine. The UN Mission was there to help with peacebuilidng efforts, and to support the Federal Government of Somalia, and AMISOM, the African Union mission.  UNSOM plays a key role in helping build the capacity of the Federal Government. My role was to provide training to UN staff that had the task of drafting reports on various aspects of the Mission mandate.
      On my first day in the UN compound in Mogadishu, I was scheduled to receive a security briefing.  Security concerns were high because of the continued activity of terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab and their ability to conduct complex attacks.
     During the security briefing, we suddenly heard a loud noise, and I could sense a very strong vibration that felt like an explosion.  We stayed still for a brief moment and then went outside to see what had happened.  We saw a large smoke plume rising in the distance and then we were told to take shelter in the closest bunker and to wait for instructions.  The tension was high in the bunker because at that point we did not know what had happened. Everyone was speculating about the possible source of the explosion and whether more attacks could follow. Later we learned that a van laden with explosives had tried to get past one of the security checkpoints.  The Al-Shabaab driver was killed in the attack. About an hour later, another attack happened, ant it could also be heard from the compound. Sadly, 13 people were killed in this second vehicle-borne explosive (VBIE) attack.
     Unfortunately, these attacks were not unusual events and loud noises put all of us on the alert.  This heightened alertness was now a part of everyday reality, our “new normal”.  We would hear a loud noise and think, “was that an explosive going off?” We had to carry a "quick-run" bag with us at all times.
      As a newcomer, I wondered how people could live like that, in that constant state of alertness and uncertainty. I realized what kept us going was the sense of community. We were all there for each other, ready to help with work and to offer emotional support when needed.  The usual formalities and hierarchy of the workplace in New York seemed less important. What kept us going was a sense of unity, knowing that all of us were sharing that experience and facing those challenges together.
     Because it was dangerous to go outside of the Mission “Green Zone”, there was a feeling of frustration at being cut off from the local culture and its people.  But one day the local culture came to us. It was on 17 March, when the Mission had a “Somali Culture Day”. The local community gave performances of traditional Somali dance and singing.  I was struck, not only with the beauty of the dance but also with how connected the dancers were with one another and with the music.  I felt blessed to be seeing that performance, which seemed to represent the people’s propensity to build a harmonious and peaceful society.
     One of the performances also reminded me of “capoeira”, a cultural expression of my home country, Brazil, that involves movement and music. It made me think of how connected we all are in this world. There I was more than 10,000 kilometers away from my home and I was witnessing such a similar way of building harmonious interaction. If countries so far apart can be so similar, then certainly that potential for harmony connects us all.


Noel's memory of the mission in East Timor (now the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste)
"I remember my first day in East Timor. It was just after the capital, Dili, had been ravaged by war.  Everything was still, dark, destroyed. Buildings had been burned right down to the ground. There were no shops.  There were no schools. There were no people on the streets. There was no "energy" of a city, no signs of a functioning society. Before I came to East Timor, I had often heard about war-torn areas, but I had never seen one before. I had just been assigned to the UN mission in East Timor for one year.  My job was to order supplies for the mission.  The first order I needed to fill was for several hundred body bags to contain and transport the many  bodies of people who'd been killed in the violence.  I had come to East Timor from my usual duty station at New York Headquarters.  The contrast between my former and present duty stations was indescribable. I had seen poverty in New York, but nothing like the poverty I saw in Dili after the war. Sometimes, in the morning, I would see a group of children gathering together to shake a berry tree so they could have something to eat. But in the course of the year, little by little, life energy seemed to return to East Timor. The UN mission brought food and medical supplies to the people. Hospitals reopened. Markets reopened. Schools reopened. UN staff trained local people in how to vote, so they could make a decision about the future of their country. By the time I left, many signs of life had returned to East Timor." (click to hear Noel reading this passage)


Bob's Memory of the Mission in Cambodia (click to hear Bob describe his mission)
"I was working in the mission to Cambodia.  My job was to head a group of trainers who were to go all throughout Cambodia training local people to be electoral officials -- who would supervise the first free, democratic elections held in the country. There was a great deal of excitement about these elections among the people -- a special spirit in the air. 
I also traveled to different parts of Cambodia and was impressed by the grandeur of a culture coming out of a dark period of its history, finding its place in the modern world. I remember once riding on a motorcycle to 'Angkor Watt', the great ancient temples of Cambodia at Angkor.  The motorcycle trip was almost surreal--riding on a modern-day motorcycle to magnificent, centuries-old temples --amidst uncertain and unimaginable danger, as no one knew where land mines might still be buried.  When I arrived at the wondrous temples at Angkor, I was struck by the greatness of this place, recently uncovered in an archeological dig. It showed a great civilization that must go on and evolve -- and not be lost to the world."


Marie-Francoise's Mission to Cambodia (click to hear Marie-Francoise's report on her mission)
"The nine months I spent in Cambodia were such a rich period of my life. I discovered a new landscape, a new mentality, a new reality. My job was to train local people to vote in the first free elections that were to take place in that country. I traveled to villages and cities in nearly every province in the country to meet and give training sessions to local people.  I was so impressed with their spirit--how pleased they were to be meeting people from outside their country and how curious they were about them. How proud they were, yet how polite they were. Before I went to Cambodia, I had never experienced an Asian culture before. I was struck by the way the people always smiled and showed such deep gratitude and even joy, despite the unspeakable hardships they had endured during the dark, war-torn period of their country.  The people were so excited to participate in the UN trainings on the democratic electoral process. So many came to join in, no matter where the classes were held--sometimes inside tents, sometimes in woven straw huts, sometimes out in the open air. In the small farming villages,  sometimes even pigs and chickens would wander into the training area, looking very content to "sit in" and listen.
I always traveled with an interpretor, Ul-Cheng, who had been a respected university professor before the war. He and I developed a very special communication. Although I could not understand a word of the Khmer language, I came to feel I knew what he was saying whenever he translated what I said for the group. Sometimes I would say to Ul-Cheng, "No, that is not what I said.  Tell them again."  Ul-Cheng would indulge me.  Smiling, he would reply, "Well, yes, perhaps you're right. Let me try again." The people would laugh whenever we had these exchanges. They, too, saw our special rapport. 
I will always treasure the hand-written note Ul-Cheng wrote to me just before I left the country, "As a remembrance of your time in Cambodia, particularly your historic participation in the Cambodian election of 1993." 


Odile’s memory of her mission to Haiti
It was 1990 – a very important year for the people of Haiti.  After four decades of living under a dictatorship, the Haitian people would have the chance to elect the leader of their choice.  My colleagues and I were part of the UN electoral mission , and our task was to monitor the elections to make sure they were free and fair –and to provide training to prepare people for the voting process -- something completely new to them. I was in Les Cayes in the southwest of the country, and I remember the great excitement in the air the day of the election, 16 December 1990. People started to line up at the polls very early in the morning—perhaps two hours before the polls opened. They wore their “Sunday best”, that is, their very best clothes. It seemed people could not stop smiling, as they now had the chance, for the first time in their lives to make a decision about who would lead their country.  Jean-Bertand Aristide was the people’s choice for President—he won by a landslide. The feeling of joy and celebration in the atmosphere was overwhelming.  Some months later, however, Aristide was toppled by a military coup. But his initial election on 16 December 1990 -- and the taste of freedom it offered the Haitian people -- opened the door to the nation’s potential for self-determination.  For me, the memory of that day and the hope it represented cannot be lost.


Isabelle's memory of her missions
United Nations staff member and poet, Isabelle Balot's memory opens with some lines from her poem, "Child Soldiers":

"Behold the child soldier, the murdered child,
Sent in battalions into the sun-scorched light
For diamonds, for ivory, black gold or white!
Pencil in hand, he would sketch only death."

(click to read the entire poem)

Click to hear Isabelle Balot read her poem, Child Soldier:
Part 1
Part 2

"The United Nations Protocol on the "Rights of the child" was adopted by the General Assembly. Among many  "rights", it specifies that no child under the age of 18 can be compelled to fight in the military.  Humanitarian aid workers from the United Nations and its agencies are making enormous efforts to stop the recruiting of child soldiers.  They also disarm child soldiers and provide them with rehabilitation, resettlement and education – in the hope of enabling them to live a full and meaningful life. But there much more needs to be done. Most basically the roots of these violent conflicts must be understood and addressed.  
What I have witnessed in conflict zones in some parts of Africa has brought tears to my eyes. I have seen child soldiers – some as young as eight years old – who were forcibly taken from their families, given drugs to “de-sensitize” them, and had guns thrust into their hands.  They were then sent out to kill "the enemy", that is, members of rival armed forces or militias. Even those "lucky ones" who are demobilized and eventually reunited with their families, are so severely psychologically and emotionally scarred by their terrible experiences that it is difficult to rehabilitate them.I am proud to be a part of efforts of the International Community.
In addition to being a humanitarian aid worker for the UN, I am a writer. Through my writing, I try to give a voice to the speechless, to the thousands of war-affected throughout the world.  I try to convey to others some part of the horror I have witnessed and appeal to the conscience of the world to do whatever can be done to restore the lost kingdom of childhood to these suffering children."

Click for printable version of this reading passage

Reading Comprehension Exercise

Class Discussion Activity

Vocabulary Word Puzzle

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