BEIRUT, Lebanon - As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew into Beirut, in Lebanon on Friday, it was business as usual for UN peacekeepers stationed in the country.
One of the biggest contingents serving at present is from Malaysia, and serving under the United Nations flag in Lebanon, they face a "a totally new experience" according to the commander of the Malaysian contingent in the country.
Currently, 850 military personnel, including 38 women, are deployed to the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.
Malaysian peacekeepers have been stationed in the eastern Mediterranean country since January 2007, and a total of 10,840 men and women have served there.
"We assist in the deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces and conduct training in support of the Government of Lebanon exercising its authority in the UNIFIL area of operation," Colonel Azhan bin Hj Md Othman, the commander of the contingent said Thursday. "The Malaysian presence in Lebanon is important in implementing UNIFIL's mandate and in ensuring stability in south Lebanon."
UNIFIL was created by the United Nations Security Council in March 1978 to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese Government in restoring its authority in the area.
The role of UNIFIL has evolved in line with developments in the region and the mission now also monitors the cessation of hostilities, accompanies and supports the Lebanese Armed Forces and helps to ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations as well as the voluntary and safe return of displaced people.
Overall, there are some 10,300 peacekeepers serving in the mission, including the Malaysian troops. These peacekeepers, who work alongside the Lebanese Army and host communities, have helped to ensure that the area, roughly 10 times the size of Paris, has enjoyed nearly 13 years of peace.
"There are challenges for our troops," according to Colonel Azhan. "It's important we maintain our credibility and legitimacy by remaining impartial throughout our operations as we continue our cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces. Consolidating our relationship with local leaders and civilians is also a key part of our mission here and must be carried out with meticulous thinking, wisdom and tolerance."
Of the 38 women presently on mission in Lebanon, four are officers and the remainder come from other ranks. "Women in the Malaysian contingent play a significant role especially in conducting certain activities such as market walks and medical support for local communities," says Colonel Azhan. "They are also involved in operational activities such as foot and vehicle patrols."
"The presence of women during these activities is definitely helpful in gaining the trust and confidence of the local female population towards UN peacekeepers. The women and girls from the host communities are comfortable with the Malaysian female peacekeepers due to our background and their respect for the local culture and religion."
Troops sent by Malaysia to UNIFIL generally spend one year in Lebanon. The next rotation is in September 2019.
"Serving under the UN Flag is a totally new experience for me and my troops. A lot of preparation is carried out ahead of our deployment. Promoting peace and conducting peacekeeping operations away from the homeland is very challenging and demanding. We are truly very proud to serve our country and the United Nations," adds Colonel Azhan.
A total of four Malaysian peacekeepers have lost their lives since 2007 while on mission with UNIFIL.
Earlier this week, on Tuesday, UNIFIL marked the 41st anniversary of its establishment with a ceremony at its headquarters in Naqoura. This was to highlight the commitment of the international community and the United Nations to the Lebanese state and its people.
"A lot of progress happened since the first deployment of UNIFIL 41 years ago, but we must look forward if we are to achieve a lasting and permanent peace in south Lebanon," the UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Major General Stefano Del Col said Tuesday. "I would like to share my vision for UNIFIL: sustain the peace, protect civilians, strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and move towards a permanent ceasefire in line with our mandate under UN Security Council resolution 1701."
At the ceremony were representatives of the LAF and other security agencies, local authorities, mayors and religious leaders. Major General Del Col and Brigadier-General Roger Helou (representing the LAF Commander) laid wreaths at the UNIFIL cenotaph paying tribute to the memory of the UN peacekeepers from around the world who, since UNIFIL's establishment in 1978, have given their lives in the cause of peace in southern Lebanon.
During the proceedings UNIFIL leadership and LAF representatives awarded 50 military staff officers with the UN Medal for their contribution to fulfilling the Mission's mandate.
While noting the work of the Mission in diffusing tensions and avoiding escalations, the head of UNIFIL emphasized the crucial role of the LAF, saying, "The Lebanese Army has grown and progressed to become a respected state institution as well as the recognized provider of security for Lebanon and its citizens. UNIFIL will continue to support this development, as well as working in close cooperation with our strategic partner, to support the stability of Lebanon and to pave the way for progress towards a resolution of this conflict."
The UNIFIL chief also highlighted the close bonds between the Mission and the people of south Lebanon, "South Lebanon has enjoyed 13 years of calm and stability since 2006. The development of communities and civil society, as well as a normalization of activity throughout the area of operations, are signs filling us with hope for a peaceful future as communities grow and prosper, becoming resistant to a return to conflict and war," he said.
Following the ceremony Major General Del Col met with the large number of local journalists in attendance. He briefed them on the current situation in the area of operation and the activities carried out by UNIFIL in close coordination with the LAF.