The Tragic Destiny of Peacekeeping

UN Troops in Cyprus.
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The Tragic Destiny of Peacekeeping

High ideals, poor execution, deadly consequences

It was a sweltering summer day in Nicosia, Cyprus. As the unrelenting sun beat down on the city, Master Cpl. David E. Blondeau and a small contingent of soldiers patrolled the “Green Line,” the demilitarized zone weaving through Cyprus’s capital. Since the 1974 ceasefire between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the United Nations has controlled the zone, a maze of vacated buildings only a few meters wide in some places.

The peace was always tenuous. Machine gun emplacements lined the Turkish side of the Green Line while Greeks staged protests on their side, often placing children between them and the Turkish machine guns.

On this hot day in 1986, the air was heavy with tension. Greek protesters marched along the edge of the Green Line while the patrol moved parallel on a street inside the zone. The protest approached a prominent Turkish position, whose machine guns were nervously trained on the mob.

The only thing preventing a bloodbath was the small peacekeeping patrol. Blondeau told his men to drop their kit and put down their weapons. Weapons were just for show. They had so little ammunition, and they had to ask permission to use lethal force. By the time confirmation was received, everyone would be dead. Blondeau placed his unarmed men between the two groups as a barrier. He planned to rush in and detain the main Greek agitator to dissipate the protest if necessary.

The agitator wouldn’t have known what hit him if the 230-pound moustached Métis ex-football player came at full sprint. Blondeau didn’t have orders to do this: In fact, he would have been severely disciplined for taking that action. He had seconds to make a decision between life and death, and he believed this was his only chance of preventing bloodshed. He had a newborn baby at home in Canada, but he was willing to risk it all for people he didn’t know and a conflict he wasn’t a part of, to try and keep the peace.

Miraculously, at the last moment, the protesters changed direction to avoid confrontation with the Turks, and Blondeau didn’t need to execute his plan. But would the same thing happen tomorrow? Next week? Next month?

This is the life of a UN peacekeeper. These are the impossible situations politicians and bureaucrats in air-conditioned rooms thousands of miles away volunteer these men for. Soldiers are trained to be decisive, take initiative, and use lethal force. Peacekeeping may be one of the most difficult tasks: It is counterintuitive to their training.

My dad toured for six months with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. Eight years earlier, in 1978, he did a six-month tour in the Golan Heights, Israel, with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (undof), which patrolled the Syrian border after the Yom Kippur War. His tour in the Golan occurred just before the Iranian Revolution. undof had an Iranian contingent; when the revolution happened in 1979, Israel surrounded the UN compound and forced them to leave. In 2013, I visited the Golan Heights and walked the same ground my dad did 35 years earlier.