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UN FEATURE by Donna Cusumano

At the time of year when many people are busying themselves for holiday parties with friends and family, when both secular and spiritual messages reverberate with appeals for peace and giving, why would three United Nations Military Liaison Officers decide to forgo the celebrations with friends and loved ones, and mark the occasion with an extraordinary symbolic gesture?

Perhaps a little background on the three MLOs helps explain their daring act. When Lt. Col. Virk Dipinder left his native India nearly a year ago for first-time deployment as a peacekeeper with UNMISS, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, he had many thoughts and questions and maybe even some ambivalence about what lay ahead.  Apprehensive about serving in an unknown land, though proud to do so under the UN flag, he also saw it as an opportunity to learn about another culture while representing India, one of the UN’s largest troop-contributing countries.

Major Vikash Kumar, also from India, and Major Liviu Chende from Romania, shared his sentiments when they, too, were deployed to UNMISS: eager for a new experience and proud to be appointed by their respective countries to serve in the world’s youngest country, yet still with some uncertainty about what lay ahead.

What never occurred to any of the three, however, was that they would be equally moved by what they saw on the ground: the longing for peace by the people in an unsettled land.  That common bond forged a friendship between the three when they met as MLOs in UNMISS.

As MLOs—Lt. Col. Dipinder is Deputy Commander of Operations, Majors Kumar and Chende are Staff Officers—the three were posted in many regions of South Sudan, including the conflict states where sporadic violence is still ongoing despite a peace agreement signed by the parties involved in the conflict. Through their daily work, Lt. Col. Dipinder explains, they had the opportunity to regularly engage with a large cross section of the local population. “I’ve interacted regularly with the government officials and members of the SPLA and I never had any problems,” says Lt. Col. Dipinder, referring to the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army, and one of the warring parties of the civil war that began in December 2013 and that ravaged the young country.

As the end of Lt. Col. Dipinder’s mission approached, early January 2016, he says he began to “feel sentimental” about his departure from South Sudan.  He reflected on his yearlong mission, what he’d done, the sights he’d seen, and the people he’d met.  Sure, he had many stories to take away and share back home; his time as a peacekeeper had enriched his life experience and provided him with new skills. Most poignantly, though, he says he was deeply moved by what he had witnessed on the ground as a UN peacekeeper: the hardships the population has to endure as a result of the civil war and the absence of peace.  “I thought: ‘we’re doing a lot, but we could do more’. You want to make a mark. You take so much with you in terms of experience when you leave a peacekeeping mission and the country you served in, so you want to give something back.”

Lt. Col. Dipinder shared his thoughts with his like-minded colleagues, Majors Kumar and Chende, and the three put their heads together to contemplate what they could do to promote peace, not just in South Sudan, but as an ideal worldwide. Eventually, they hatched a plan. They would scale Mount Kilimanjaro to hoist the UN flag at the lofty snow cone’s summit—in the name of peace.

Initially they considered inviting the local population to climb Jebel Kujur, a high rocky hill located in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, but “that wasn’t special enough, we do that all the time,” Lt. Col. Dipinder says.

The legendary Mount Kilimanjaro seemed most appropriate, Lt. Col. Dipinder explains, because “South Sudan is on the African continent, and Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain on the continent and the largest free-standing mountain in the world.”

By climbing Africa’s tallest mountain, says Major Chende, “we want to send a message to the people that together, as a team, we can suppress any problems that appear and eventually fulfill our goal.”

The three are seasoned climbers.  Lt. Col Virk, the Team Leader, has summited many mountains, including Mount Gangotri, part of the Himalaya Mountain range in India. At 6, 672 meters, Mount Gangotri is renowned for its technical difficulty. He also instructs young women, back home in India, on how to climb and two of his students have successfully taken on Mount Everest. Major Kumar has trained troops in survival at high altitude areas, while Major Chende, trained in Austria, has experience in glacier and rock climbing. The three are truly motivated by the idea of combining this extraordinary physical act with unswerving dedication to the UN’s mission of peace.

“We want to show the efforts of the UN and UNMISS,” Major Kumar explains, “to give hope to the people of South Sudan and to show them that peacekeepers are so committed, that they are ready to climb the highest mountain in Africa to show that there’s a heart attached to the blue berets. We also wish for the image of peacekeepers to be known for being motivated by the ideals behind peacekeeping and the blue berets.”

The three will begin their ascent on 22 December and, if all goes according to plan, they will be hoisting their UN flag on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on Christmas day. They expect to complete the entire climb within six days. UNMISS Public Information Office, through its Radio Miraya, will be tracking the expedition with periodic check-ins by satellite phone provided to the team. The UNMISS social media team will tweet messages and post Facebook updates so the public can track the climb.

While there remains instability, the three are hopeful for the future of the country. “We’ve seen the comprehensive peace agreement signed, and even though there have been many ups and downs of this peace process,” says Major Kumar, “I am certain it will take South Sudan towards stability because there is huge potential in this country,” says Major Kumar.  “We want the peace to become stable, solid and long standing, just like Mount Kilimanjaro.”

(Courtesy: UN Information Centre for India and Bhutan)

Vandana Kumar

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 35-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...