Yesterday, a knock on my driver's side window, as I waited in line for the next step in my transportation, brought me into direct contact with three individuals, one an instructor and two students in a month-long training program for United Nations peacekeepers. The instructor was from Equador, the students were from Switzerland and New Brunswick. It was the mother of two from New Brunswick who had some questions about the area they were researching.
As she made notes, I became conscious of the considerable gap in both interest and relevance of international issues between the Canadian public consciousness of the many troubled spots around the world and these young men and one woman who were dedicating their professional careers to the service of all of us.
The Equadoran trainer had spent one tour of duty in Somalia, and articulated both the tribalism and the religious conflict he had encountered in that country, in which the radical Islamists had forced a division of the country into north and south, the north occupied and ruled by Muslims who had imposed Sharia law, the south occupied by Christians. And within that broader perspective, there are tribal 'provinces' which serve to encircle each tribe, while attempting to keep out "foreign" tribes.
If a man "strays" from his province into the adjacent province, he is immediately suspected of seeking and preying upon one of the woman from the adjacent province and could suffer the consequences.
The young mother will deploy to Congo, to help with an orphanage in that beleaguered country, and will serve for two months in that country. We exchanged emails and I look forward to hearing from her about the needs of the orphanage and how her home country might attempt to meet those needs.
The Swiss 'student' will be deployed in 2015 to Sudan, another of the trouble spots in Africa, again suffering from Islamist radicals and their pursuit of an Islamic state.
While these three young people, all proudly wearing the blue beret or cap of the United Nations, along with both the Canadian and Equadoran military uniforms (my Swiss visitor was serving in other assignments back home directly under the United Nations), and their vehicle bore the blue flag also of the United Nations, I was reminded of the many times we had all watched as these symbols of peace and of peacekeeping and of peacekeepers were caught on camera in so many corners of the world, when the news was hot and the issue grabbed public attention. Thankfully, Canada serves as a training site for this generation of peacekeepers, and we are not likely to need the services these young people will provide, under considerable risk and danger to themselves, to those people suffering in conflict. The young mother from New Brunswick, who instantly made me proud to be a Canadian once again, far from the Olympic venues of Sochi, where other Canadians are gathering medals and flowers as they too burnish the Canadian reputation, told me of stories from her training that indicate the women in the UN camps put a watchperson on duty to protect them from the possibility of rape that could invade their quarters at any time. Said with a kind of nonchalance and grasp of reality, this young woman proudly displayed her rank of Major, and mentioned that her young family would have to stay in Canada during her tour of duty.
Naturally I invited all three to stay in contact, not only because I have a deep and profound respect for their courage and their commitment to peace in a very troubled world, but also because I believe that the next frontier of human accomplishment and human investigation and research, along with the many other frontiers of medicine, space, technology and undersea, as well as global warming and climate change, is "foreign affairs"....as the world shrinks in perceptual dimensions, as the resources to feed and cloth and provide clean water are stretched to the limit and as we come face to face with the no-longer abstract concept that we are indeed "our brother's keeper" in the widest possible application of that old chestnut.
And the violence that we read about, and watch on our television and computer screens could become a reality in all of our lives, without notice. (Just last evening, a former head of the security agency that protects the United States power grid, interviewed by Judy Woodruff on PBS, documented what he called a deliberate, disciplined and potentially fatal blow to a power station by individuals within the United States who had studied the grid, knew when and how to hit it, (although they chose a time when consumption was relatively low) and still have not been discovered.)
We wish peace and safety to our UN peacekeeper trainees and their instructors, in their upcoming missions and in their pursuit of a peace that we all know is elusive and its pursuit puts them directly in harm's way. They are doing this for all of us, in every country, of every ethnicity and culture and language on the planet. They are our ambassadors and they deserve our support.