Giving Thanks to Peace Workers

In Bosnia and Rwanda, relief staff, diplomats, and soldiers keep war at bay

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a portion of their gratitude should extend to those men and women who today are working to create and maintain peace in Bosnia and Rwanda. For those involved, whether relief workers, diplomats, or soldiers, the task is not easy - and each group is adapting to unprecedented challenges.

In the front line are the representatives of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both foreign and indigenous. It is their personnel who are glimpsed in the television pictures handing out food, guiding refugees, caring for the sick and wounded, finding parents for lost children. They live often in primitive conditions with risks to both life and health. Their modest incomes and field support are at the mercy of unpredictable government grants and private donations.

Since the crisis in Somalia, NGOs, accustomed to providing relief in the relatively controlled environment of natural disasters, have had to adapt to areas dissolving into chaos. Their people are often threatened and subject to intimidation and extortion. Where they once sought to act without official protection, many, to ensure security, have begun working closely with deployed foreign military forces. Observing atrocities in the midst of ethnic conflict, they have been hard pressed to maintain their traditional neutrality among conflicting forces. NGOs with a history of operating independently have found it necessary to coordinate efforts more formally with other NGOs and governments.

Closely allied with the NGOs are the United Nations agencies - especially the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Food Program (WFP). The UNHCR, in particular, has faced unprecedented tides of displaced persons. Resources are often inadequate, and countries are unwilling to repatriate their citizens.

But relief is only a stop-gap measure. Refugees must ultimately return home. People need once more to have housing and to plant crops. Such restoration is only possible if peace can be established. That task falls to diplomats - official government envoys, UN officials, and conflict resolution specialists from private organizations. They are the ones who must stare down angry groups and find the common denominators that may resolve differences. They endure the countless hours of rigid, repetitive argument, the unseen pressures that create intransigence, and the abuse from those who resent compromise. In areas of conflict, they, too, are subject to the hardships of living in shattered cities.

In the last decade, a third element has increasingly been added to the mix of relief workers and diplomats - soldiers. As the international community has determined that people could not be fed or conflict resolved, outside intervention has become a fact of international life. For the US military, this has required major adjustments, especially after the initial tragic experiences in Somalia.

A US Institute of Peace publication, Peace Watch, reports the views of Col. J. Michael Hardesty, a fellow at the institute. Colonel Hardesty notes the unique characteristics of recent deployments that have required retraining Army personnel. Interventions occur in locations without preestablished intelligence networks and, as a result, military personnel were "unaware that they were dealing with unreliable, corrupt, or potentially subversive individuals or groups." Intervening military forces must learn to understand and communicate with local people whose culture and political environment are unfamiliar. They must also learn to work with NGOs and local governments. The results of the first deployment in Bosnia, in which the US participated in an effective separation of opposing forces, have been gratifying. But for the young officer or enlisted man, the job was unusual. The adversary was no longer distant and impersonal, but was at times face to face, as demonstrated dramatically in recent photographs of US soldiers confronting an angry Muslim crowd in Bosnia.

Each of the three - the relief worker, the diplomat, and the soldier - has faced the agonizing fact that they are doing only part of the task. Permanent peace requires economic development, reconstruction, and reconstituted authority. Because of restraints on resources and attitudes of governments, the move from relief and peace to rebuilding has been slow. Many regret leaving the job half done. But for what they have done in conditions that would test the patience of Job, they truly deserve the world's thanks.

David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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