One of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century was the peacekeeper: a soldier whose entire purpose was to STOP wars from happening. Canada has a proud tradition of this and I had the honour of doing two tours as a UN military observer in the Middle East. Some might call it the dubious honour of standing between the Arabs and Israelis saying “Stop! Don’t shoot or I’ll tell!”
Armed with nothing but our blue berets, we had the chance to witness simmering conflict that occasionally erupted into violence. Usually the belligerents would target each other, but in South Lebanon in particular they had the nasty habit of using UN bases as cover from which to launch their attacks. I can’t say the UN was doing a bang-up job of keeping the peace in South Lebanon, but at least I wasn’t bored.
By comparison, my tour in the Golan Heights, where the UN maintains a “neutral zone” several kilometers across, peace more or less reigned. Many of my colleagues were bored by our quiet days in the observation posts, but I took heart in this simple realization: people weren’t dying, because we were there.
I think what affected me most during my 13 months in the Middle East was my interaction with the local people. Part of our UN mandate was to stay engaged with the people, and on our daily patrols we’d often stop to chat with villagers. Many of the families worked as subsistence farmers and lived in single-room, concrete-box houses. They were generous and hospitable to us, but I could tell that their hard lives aged them quickly. With patchy electricity, poor roads and very few opportunities, these folks worked their land, raised their kids, and hoped that neither a foreign army nor their own government would harass them too much. The arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria this year has so far done little to improve the lives of the locals.
What the Arab Spring may have brought, though, is hope. During my time in Syria it pained me to see the smiling, happy children running through the dusty village streets, because I knew what they mercifully hadn’t yet realized: there was no hope for a better life for them. Before long their childhood would end, they would take up their plows and they would toil to support their own children in a land where the government had taken all their rights and destroyed any hope for opportunity and building a better future. The Arab Spring has brought violence and fear to Syria, but just possibly, as they look to their neighbours in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the Syrians might realize that there is another way and they might, just possibly, rediscover hope.
As an author I support War Child Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting children in war zones. This is a noble and worthwhile cause, for while those who take up arms choose their fate, war is no place for a child. A portion of every sale of my novel Virtues of War is donated to War Child in support of their efforts. I had the opportunity to don a blue beret and stand between the guns with my best “I’m watching you” stare to try and save lives. Not everyone has the chance to do that, but I encourage you all to find a charity or organization that is providing hope for humanity, like War Child, and give them your support.
Photos By Bennett R. Coles – All Rights Reserved
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