UN Reverie

Over the past couple days I’ve been a little out of sorts.

Not irritable or cranky, just distracted.

I’d been plugging along on prep workd for what I’ll call Project A, trying to get a fair amount done before a crucial meeting (and before the first wave of house guests arrives). 

I’m really excited about Project A, so it shouldn’t have been too difficult to remain focused and on task.

Except that I kept drifting. Something was teasing around in the back of my mind, yet I couldn’t figure out what it was.

I know myself well enough when this happens to just ignore it and keep plodding on. Eventually the synapses in my brain will align and voila, I’ll have that ‘light bulb’ moment when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Then I understand not only what I’ve been subconsciously thinking about, but also why, and more importantly, how I feel about it.

For me, that moment was this morning.

While on twitter the other day, I happened to notice someone who had worked for the UN in the past and was writing a novel loosely based on her experiences. I was curious, and checked out her profile.

The next day I caught sight of an exchange between the first person and a second, a writer who has just finished a non-fiction book about her experiences with the UN. Similarly intrigued, I took a look at her profile and visited her website.

And then this morning, it hit me.

A cavalcade of flashbacks, memories from my two years in the Pentagon serving as the Director for Peacekeeping Policy from 1998 to 2000.

I led a small group responsible for dealing with policy issues regarding how and when the US military might (or might not) plan, engage in or otherwise support peacekeeping missions and operations throughout the world.

Most, but not all, of these peacekeeping missions were under UN cognizance. Many were long-standing operations, while others were borne out of the crises headlining the world at that time.

We essentially monitored and weighed in on whatever hotspots were popping up, crises were brewing, conflicts that threatened to boil over. We were routinely called ‘Crises ‘R Us’ (a play on the name of the toy store chain Toys ‘R Us).

When I think back to that time, first and foremost I remember the people. Some I’ve kept tabs on, others have drifted away. You had to steel yourself at times to deal with the sickening intelligence reports; at other times, only by emotionally removing yourself could you continue to function effectively and professionally.

But I can tell you that, to a person, none of us ever lost sight of the fact that we were dealing with horrible situations that involved real people, real human suffering.

My mind categorizes that time by the places we were dealing with: Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, Kosovo, East Timor, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Iraq-Kuwait, Haiti, India-Pakistan, Bosnia and easily a dozen more.

A laundry list of places where man’s inhumanity against his fellow man was or had once been on full display.

I spent a lot of time in secure video-teleconference meetings between Washington and New York, participated in delegation discussions with other countries, logged miles visiting UN missions in places such as the Western Sahara and the Sinai.

It isn’t often that I write about my ‘previous life’ in this venue. Actually, I haven’t written about it much at all, anywhere.

But that’s been slowly changing as I work on one of my other writing projects (Project B), a midlife memoir of sorts.

However, I had never written about my time in the peacekeeping arena, and had no immediate plans to do so.

But the exchanges on Twitter were yet another instance of the seemingly random connections that occur, linking people and places and experiences, even if they’ve never met. All serving to remind us that this is indeed a majestically grand and yet incredibly small world we live in.

So who were these two writers, who, unbeknownst to them, have triggered such a flood of memories?

The first is Gry Tina Tinde, currently a Diversity Advisor for the Inter-American Development Bank. (She tweets as @TinaTinde.) She’s also spent much of her career working for the UN in New York, Cambodia, former Yugoslavia and Geneva.

Here’s an interview she did with Expat Women two years ago, when she was Special Advisor handling external relations and networking for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ program entitled ‘Women Leading for Livelihoods’.

Gry is writing a novel set in the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Cambodia (UNTAC), whose main character is faced with ‘dirty career games, violence and abuse in a peacekeeping operation’.

[During my stint in peacekeeping, my boss was then the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance. Jim had worked at one point as a special advisor to UNTAC and then to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I’m glad to see he now serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations.]

The second is Marianne Elliott, aka Zen Peacekeeper and Change-Maker, who describes herself as a writer, human rights advocate and yoga teacher. (On Twitter she’s @zenpeacekeeper.)

Poke around her website and you’ll find she trained as a lawyer and worked on a human rights strategy in her native New Zealand. Then she moved on to human rights work in East Timor and the Gaza Strip before heading up a provincial office for the UN Mission in Afghanistan.

But it was these words, spoken about her time in Afghanistan, that jumped out at me:

‘… in Afghanistan, where I learned the difference between striving for change and being of service. These days I aim to be of service.’

Marianne has written a memoir (Zen Under Fire) about her life and work in Afghanistan; it’s in that exciting stage where her agent is shopping it around.

For me, my time dealing with peacekeeping issues seems a lifetime ago. Learning about these two women brought it all back.

How cool is it that two women, possessed of such amazing experience and so dedicated to making this world a better place, are writing about their UN experiences?!

Well to this expat sitting in her own little corner of the world, striving to make a difference in her own way, it is awesome.

And I’m betting I’m not the only one who thinks so.

We’ve all encountered people along the way who inspire us by their efforts, both big and small, to make change. Who (or what) inspires you?  Please share!


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