27 November 2019
People pursue careers at the United Nations for reasons as varied as the countries from which they hail. Many prospective staff members envision serving at some point in their career in regions beset by the effects of war, injustice, poor governance and poverty, with the hope of easing the plight of the people most in need on the ground. I knew when I was recruited that I would be spending some time—maybe years—at a desk within the Organization’s vast bureaucracy, but I also hoped for eventual assignment to a field mission, where I could make a more direct contribution to the resolution of complex problems. My first job with the United Nations began in March 2015, when I was assigned to the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) as a desk officer covering Somalia. Later, in August 2017, I joined the Department of Global Communications, but continued to harbour a thirst for service in the field.
Eventually, in August 2018, I arrived in the Sudan for my first United Nations peacekeeping assignment full of enthusiasm as well as anxiety. I had been posted to the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), where I was to serve as Special Assistant to the Mission Chief of Staff (MCOS). I was based at Mission Headquarters in El Fasher, a remote town in the heart of the Darfur region that could not be more different from New York. Coming from an academic background, my decision to apply for a job with UNAMID stemmed from an intellectual interest in the political and developmental situation in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, a part of the world that some academics and policymakers have referred to as the “arc of crisis”.1
Late 2018 was an interesting time to arrive in the Sudan, as the political situation in the country was relatively stable compared to five or ten years earlier. In Darfur, prolonged, intense fighting between government forces and rebel groups had been reduced to low-level skirmishes confined to the Jebel Marra sub-region. In fact, the security situation within Darfur had improved to the extent that the United Nations Security Council had already designated June 2020 as the exit date for UNAMID. Things changed unexpectedly, however, in December 2018, when anti-government protests erupted all over the Sudan due to worsening economic conditions. These protests culminated in the ousting of long-time President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019—Sudan’s first change of government in 30 years. Al-Bashir’s removal triggered a turbulent 5-month period characterized by further protests, military crackdowns on protestors and the specter of low-intensity civil war, which was narrowly averted through an intense international mediation process. Those efforts brought about a national unity government and the signing of a new national constitution in August 2019. This series of events describes the Sudan in which I worked for 12 months.
The realities of mission life in Darfur became clear within days of my arrival in El Fasher. Confinement to a militarized compound, significant water rationing that allowed for just a few hours of running water each day, limited food options and some of the hottest weather on the planet were just a few of the inconveniences we dealt with there. I suffered two bouts of food poisoning within my first six weeks, as I was settling into one of the busiest positions in the mission, with workdays that often added up to 80 hours a week. For context, UNAMID was, at the time, the second largest United Nations peacekeeping operation in the world, with an annual budget of about $700 million, a uniformed personnel deployment of 4,050 military and 2,500 police, and a civilian staff footprint of just over 1,500.2 At its peak in 2012, UNAMID was the largest United Nations peacekeeping operation, with a roughly $2 billion annual budget and a uniformed personnel count of over 20,000 deployed across an area the size of France. Despite the many difficulties and discomforts, I eventually settled into my new role as MCOS Special Assistant, which afforded me a bird’s-eye view of the daily operations of this major mission. I was responsible for, inter alia, editing all outgoing correspondence, processing all incoming correspondence and convening senior management meetings.
If I had to cite my most memorable UNAMID experiences, topping the list would be an event that occurred within weeks of my arrival, involving an operation in which UNAMID deployed its first humanitarian mission into rebel-held territory following a mudslide disaster that killed scores of civilians. The deployment necessitated negotiations with the Sudanese Government and rebel groups regarding ground and air access to the disaster area. I convened the Crisis Management Team (CMT) and provided background support as the CMT oversaw the unfolding events in real-time, over a period of several days. The work was akin to facilitating a graduate school Model UN session, except in this case, the stakes were real and the experience itself was riveting. It was also, at times, very moving, including when the commanders of the humanitarian mission had to describe the enormous scale of the devastation and human suffering at the disaster site as they experienced it firsthand.
I also vividly recall taking part in an exercise that is routine in all United Nations peacekeeping operations, when the Head of the mission is required to “defend” the mission’s annual budget in a grueling three-hour session with a 14-member panel from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ). The meeting in which I participated was conducted via video teleconference and set up in such a way that the New York-based ACABQ panelists saw only the Head of Mission and the Director of Mission Support on their projection screen. On the field side, I and other colleagues sat at the table but off-camera, feverishly scribbling away and sliding note cards to aid our two principals whenever they had to tackle the more technical and minutely detailed questions. It was a fascinating process—in many respects as challenging as a PhD thesis defense, and such a great way to learn about the minutiae of United Nations peacekeeping operations.
One key advantage we had in UNAMID was that by 2018, the security environment in Darfur had greatly improved. It had become possible for senior officials to routinely venture out of United Nations camps for meetings with government officials, civil society groups and rural communities; visits to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps; and trips to sites where UNAMID was engaged in infrastructure or capacity-building projects. As an occasional member of such delegations, I was able to develop a feel for the impact of UNAMID on the ground and to uncover dynamics I would not have grasped as a New York-based desk officer. This was equally true when we had to contend with the unforeseen change of government in Khartoum, which necessitated frequent emergency meetings within UNAMID, between UNAMID and United Nations Headquarters in New York, and between UNAMID and the Government of the Sudan on how to maintain stability and the planned mission exit.
Prior to the political upheaval of December 2018, it was also possible for UNAMID staff members to visit local community markets during weekends. This additional opportunity afforded me the chance to interact with ordinary Darfuris going about their daily lives, to appreciate their overall strength of character as a people in the face of adversity and to experience their palpable sense of hospitality. One memorable instance was an excursion, courtesy of the Darfuri national staff colleagues in the MCOS office, to enjoy local Darfuri cuisine at a market situated within the nearby Abu Shouk camp, one of the largest IDP camps in North Darfur and home to about 80,000 people. We were treated very well by everyone we encountered, our United Nations badges and foreign attire notwithstanding.
Ultimately, I found my mission assignment very rewarding. I returned to New York more convinced than ever of the relevance of the United Nations in the twenty-first century, having witnessed the security, humanitarian and political difference3 that UNAMID had made in the lives of the people of Darfur over the course of its 12-year deployment. My advice to fellow staff members contemplating the idea of serving in a peacekeeping operation is to do so if they can and as early in their careers as possible. Working in a United Nations peacekeeping operation or special political mission will undoubtedly enrich their careers and afford them an opportunity for unforgettable life experiences. It will also help them contextualize their assignments at Headquarters or other United Nations offices, where one often loses sight of the impact of their work in less fortunate parts of the globe.
In reflecting on my time in Darfur, I am reminded of a quote from the late, great United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who said “never forget, the real challenges and the real rewards of serving in the United Nations are out there in the field, where people are suffering, where people need you.”4
1 George Lenczowski, “The Arc of Crisis: its central sector”, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1979. Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/1979-03-01/arc-crisis-its-central-sector, accessed 2 October 2019.
2 These figures were current as of June 2019.
3 For more information on UNAMID political, security and humanitarian aid accomplishments, kindly refer to the website of UNAMID: https://unamid.unmissions.org/; and the UNAMID page on the peacekeeping website: https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/mission/unamid.
4 BBC, Four Storyville, "Fight to save the world: Sergio", 2 June 2011. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011m9vy.
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