On-Site Reports from Our Peacekeepers

Lt. Col. Chizu Kurita,
Military Liaison Officer in Baucau

In What Form Can Japan Contribute to Timor-Leste?

"Mana Kurita!" girls shout at me again and again in an orphanage for girls that I frequently visit. "Mana" means a big sister in Tetum, and "kurita" an octopus. I'm not sure if they have taken to me or just enjoy calling me an octopus. Either way, I spend a pleasant time with the peppy girls, who cheer me up.

With energetic girls in the Laga Girls' Orphanage(img)

With energetic girls in the Laga Girls' Orphanage

What Does a Military Liaison Officer Do?

In the history of UNpeacekeeping operations, "military observers" have played an active role in a number of countries. In brief, their mission is to step in between two conflicting parties by mutual consent as "a third party" to prevent further dispute in the post-conflict stage. Hence, the third party should be military. It seems straightforward.

But something had not made sense to me since I have been dispatched to Timor-Leste. Military people are called for because of post-conflict public disorder. That's true, but my main duties are "information collection and reporting," which is a far cry from disengagement or monitoring of weapons. Why not civilians?

Our Baucau team is in charge of most of the eastern half of the country, which includes no border (to put it another way, we are allotted vast areas because they are border-free). We gather not only security information, but also information on social infrastructure, such as food, economy, and sanitation, because the deterioration of those areas will likely to lead to increasingly fragile security. We visit local governments, particularly "villages" and interview village chiefs.



But again, why do we military people wear camouflage uniforms? Why not civilians? Anyway, I started working on the ground with a lot of questions in my head, encouraging myself to concentrate only on my duties.

Defining Military

I managed to learn two significant things in the field.

First, military people take risks, are well-organized, and are tough.

When they enlist in the Self-Defense Force in Japan, all new recruits take an oath that they shall take risks in the face of danger. I'm not sure if that's also the case with other countries, but as a common understanding, military officers are expected to have the capability of "risk aversion" and "an ability to run certain risks and accomplish their mission." What if someone hurls a stone during an outdoor operation? A military person would (or is supposed to) lie down or hide behind a car on the spur of the moment.

In the military world, "a chain of command" and "basic movements" are regarded as common understanding across the world. My team leader is always saying, "You can do that! We're not civilians!" (what most Japanese consider common sense, such as being punctual, working orderly, etc.)

The whole Baucau team at the end of May(img)

The whole Baucau team at the end of May

Speaking of toughness, the vehicles we drive are much sturdier than those of civilians and police officers (at the cost of comfortableness, perhaps), and get muddiest after patrol. We go to places in the interior too remote even for government and UN officials to visit. Bad roads are to blame. I have visited villages that are so isolated in the rainy season, that even the police avoid patrolling, and that no UN and government officials had visited over the past two years. If we can't make it in a day, we plan an "overnight patrol." If bad roads prevent us from reaching a village, we go there by helicopter, or on foot. "We go anywhere!" seems to be a part of UNMIT 's military policy.

Passing a difficult route in cooperation with team members(img)

Passing a difficult route in cooperation with team members

Second, military camouflage uniforms are useful to show our presence in every corner of the country and contribute to peace and order.

One of my colleagues once told me, "My uniform's design is similar to that of the Indonesian Army, so I sometimes scare local folks." That may not be a good example, but the impressive uniform draws local attention just the same. Some get a sense of security, looking at foreign military liaison officers cooperating with them. Besides, we have no weapons. I wonder what we, supposedly scary military officers, look like to the locals, coming closer and listening to their stories, unarmed.

In contrast, UN police officers carry guns with them in UNMIT . That may be why some locals don't like the UN police. Of course, military liaison officers have many different duties. As a military person, I always pay attention to behaving gently and kindly, since I have a threatening uniform but without arms.

My Routine

Our Baucau team is allocated more than 150 villages, so the odds are low that we visit the same village twice. Besides villages, we stop by quite a few places-local offices, police stations, clinics, and so on. Excited about new encounters every day and thankful for villagers who warmly welcome our abrupt visit, I try to interview them honestly.

"How many meals a day?" "One." "Only one?! Rice aside, how about potatoes or bananas?" "Well, they're available, too." "Do you have three meals a day if you count them? But rice is in short supply anyway, I'm afraid." "Yeah, climate has been changing recently, and it rains even in the dry season. And rats eat the crops!" "Rats ... rice in the market is expensive because of bad roads, isn't it?" "It is. The government won't distribute rice to us!"

As we gather information face to face, our interview skills influence the quality and quantity of information we can get. Give good first impressions, understand their circumstances, and obtain the information you want to get, while trying to listen to what they want to talk about and empathize with them. Conversation will grow active, and they will see you off at the door. It is the moment that touches me most. East Timorese are extremely friendly. Awful as my English is, I owe much of my accomplishments to my bright interpreter.

Interviewing with a village chief(img)

Interviewing with a village chief

My duty does not allow me to provide food directly for people, or immediately improve their living environment. All I can do is report back to the headquarters and hope that some political measures will be taken to alleviate their poverty, which is rife, especially in isolated villages. Sometimes I find myself powerless.

"Your village doesn't have water supply, right?" "We had, but the conflict with Indonesia devastated it." "How long does it take to get to the water source?" "It's the dry season now. In worst cases, they leave home at 2 a.m. and come back at 4 p.m." "You mean 14 hours?!" "Water carriers become thirsty on their way home and can't help asking nearby houses for water, but they simply turned down because carriers are carrying water!" "No way!" "Indeed!"

The conflict with Indonesia contributed to poor social infrastructure in local areas. Electricity, water supplies and bridges were severely damaged. That gives me the impression that they gave up their quality of life in exchange for independence and freedom. "On an equal footing" may sound arrogant, but I believe in the power of empathy, getting along with the locals. They talk about the bad food and infrastructure situation every day, and all I can do is give them a nod of agreement. Many villagers complain that the government only listens and makes no response. I can't do anything tangible, but I feel satisfied when I hear them saying, "The Japanese who came the other day seemed really moved by our situation."

As a Japanese?

Peacekeepers are multinational. In a sense, we try to show our national flags. Everybody has their unique style of contribution to the locals even when we engage in the same duties such as patrol and interviewing. Some give small presents brought from their home country, and others give kids candies.

I make the most of being "Japanese from the future world," as my colleagues dubbed me. As a "gadget girl," I give photos taken on the spot, three-color ballpoint pens with a national flag, of course made in Japan and other knick-knacks. Sometimes I give kids candies, but never throw them into the air. That's Japanese.

 UNMIT has only two Japanese military liaison officers, so I try to display Japan's national flag and get closer to people. When they call, "China!" I called back, "Lae, Japaun (No, Japan)!" T-shirts with Japan's national flag give me more opportunities to be called. I feel happy.

Shouting, "Malae (Foreigner)!" children, sometimes dozens of them, are running up to me. What if I run out of gadgets to give them?

My secret: sit down, smile and reach out my hands.

The moment the first brave kid nervously shakes hands with me, all of them—interested but having kept me at a distance at first—surge toward me.

Their tiny, muddy hands that may have blown their nose are warm just the same. I clasp them tightly, and murmur, "Do your best," convinced that the future of this country is theirs.

Sometimes in Japanese (it works, sort of)(img)

Sometimes in Japanese (it works, sort of)

As a Woman?

One of the female military liaison officers' advantages is to give local folks a fresh impression.

There are very few female drivers in Timor-Leste, so I draw much attention when I drive a UN car. I say, "Bon dia (Good morning)!" over the window, and try to be easy to recognize as a woman when I'm not in uniform by letting my hair down, for instance. They usually look surprised and pleased, and then wave their hand. I hope I can be of any help to cheer them up. Women can drive and join the army!

With a reliable female local police officer(img)

With a reliable female local police officer

I assumed a new duty the other day: cooperation with UNICEF on children's measles, vitamin A, and vermifuge situations. I love interviewing 20 families in one village. I look forward to visiting every home and seeing moms. Surprised by the numbers of children?—sometimes seven or nine—every time, I shake hands with the moms in appreciation. Looking at their bashful smiles and imagining that they somehow barely eke out a living, their resilience tugs at my heartstrings.

A mother I met had six children and no husband. I didn't ask her the details, but she was likely to be another victim of a sex crime. Local people said that her case was not unusual. I was close to tears when I thought about her life. Her skinny figure looked all the more wistful with a smile on her face, and I handed a candy out of respect and encouragement, saying in Japanese, "I usually give them to children, but this is for you." She immediately tucked it away. After the survey, I remembered her and gave her six more candies.

I will never forget her strength in her delightful smile when I looked into her eyes.

In Baucau, July 20, 2011