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Sinai: A wilderness adventure in the 21st Century

1 May 2011

It’s "the world’s most successful peacekeeping force -  that no-one has ever heard of". Unless you’ve been there, you’re unlikely to know much about this exclusive club. It’s not United Nations, but it is multinational. Even during the recent stirrings in the Middle East, the Multinational Force and Observers hardly got a mention. Those who have worn the orange beret are proud of their contribution to lasting peace between Egypt and Israel. For many years, there was freedom of movement around Northern Sinai.

Into, and out of, Gaza and Israel a benign permissive environment prevailed. Travelling in the area has been punctuated by the periodic crises of the region: the Intifadas, when Israel was off limits; the revolution in Egypt, when Cairo became the scene of popular protest, further restricted movement into and out of North Camp, near the traditional East-West Mediterranean highway. 

The NZ Contingent is one of 12 nations’ military teams; it has existed in several different forms since 1982. New Zealand’s contribution is 28 service men and women, plus the current Force Commander. The New Zealand jobs fall into four broad categories: Driving Team, Training Team, Engineers and Headquarters Staff, including Liaison. Age groups, ranks, sexes and services are all well represented. Our people come for 6 months’ or a year’s tour of duty. That can be a long time in the middle of nowhere.

For many, life is never quite the same after. ‘A melting pot’, ‘a velvet prison’, a stepping-off point for the rest of the Middle East and Europe; the MFO service can lead to some life altering encounters and experiences, professionally and socially. Some come for the professional development (small teams with lots of responsibility), or allowances. Some want to find something new, some are running away from something. Most are sad to leave. All seem to want to do their best, and contribute to peace.  Several contributing nations have soldiers who have spent a total of more than 10 years of their lives in the Sinai. Many of the civilian workers, both local and expatriate, have spent over 25 years working on North and South Camps.

Sights, Sounds and Smells

In November the temperature in Cairo is still in the mid-20s. Bright sunshine during the day, and foul smelling traffic, punctuated with harsh air horns. I took the opportunity to explore the sprawling city of 27 million people. Mohammed picked me up from the Hotel ‘Concorde – el Salaam’ (Peace, in Arabic) and took me toward the Nile. His car had once been a Lada Niva, but had long since lost any badges of identity. Even the black and white brush paint was scarce, seemingly the only element holding its geriatric frame together. We leapt into the stream of traffic, struggling to keep up. Suddenly, there was an excruciating clunk and squeal, as the final drive fell out onto the road.  Not even a flicker of surprise from Mohammed, who calmly stopped in the middle of the torrent and crawled under the car, with his legs sticking out into the highway, as if protruding from the jaws of a crocodile (sadly there are no longer crocodiles in the Lower Nile). I think he used a paper clip to reattach the drive train, and we once more entered the fray. This happened six times during a 35 minute journey. We were just part of the Cairo scene; men with bread trays on their heads and women wearing six layers of black rayon did not even notice. I sat helplessly in the taxi, with no seatbelt, watching in the rear view mirror as vehicles hurtled towards us, before letting rip with their air horns, each one louder and more menacing than the last (this item of equipment being clearly more important than engine, gearbox, lights or brakes).

The journey to Sinai, marked by the symbolic crossing of the Suez in a white Chevy pickup, revealed more quaint forms of transport. A favourite is the donkey cart, with unfeasibly large loads being drawn by an emaciated creature half dead with exhaustion. This traditional mode of transport is being rapidly replaced in both Palestinian Territories and Northern Sinai with the tuk tuk, a kind of motorised commode with curtains, which does not need feeding and can carry heavy loads on a pint of gasoline.

After a tour in Afghanistan, it was sometimes hard to remember that we were in Egypt by invitation, that this was a permissive mission, and co-operation on both sides is required and expected. A map of the Sinai reveals huge river systems, but no water. This was a puzzle to me until flash floods in January 2010 swept away roads, houses and infrastructure in El Arish, the nearest city to North Camp. For a while, we were like an island, with all roads being impassable. However, water remains a precious commodity. The Nile, the life blood of Egypt for millennia, is now being diverted in Ethiopia and Sudan, and will be a source of conflict between these neighbours in the future. Entering Israel is like stepping through a curtain to a different universe. Immediately apparent are the good roads, Western-style clothing and shiny cars. However water is just as much of an issue here. The Sea of Galilee (actually a quite modest lake) is 20 feet below its traditional level, and full of toxins, due to the lack of water. The River Jordan, which feeds into it, is but a trickle. The Dead Sea is likely to disappear over the next 30 years. Neighbours Syria, Lebanon and Jordan also struggle to share this precious asset. In the Middle East, people have plenty to disagree about.

The Job

For NZ drivers, the road is a long one, it is also the pinnacle of RNZALC professional driving. The biggest single killer in Sinai has been road traffic accidents. Sand drifts, pot holes, local drivers, heat, fatigue, and speed, all play a role. The delivery of vital supplies, such as water and rations, to remote observation posts, involves starting work at 0430am, and often returning to North Camp after 6pm. Driving is restricted to daylight hours however a delay, a breakdown or crossing the border, can cause teams to return in convoy after darkness has fallen.

The Force Commander is responsible for keeping open the lines of communication by liaison between Egypt and Israel at an operational level. His job therefore involves taking issues and disputes to Cairo and Tel Aviv for resolution at a high level. We, his staff, spent many hours on the road and preparing the agendas and conditions for a successful meeting. There were notes to take, protocols to follow, and often a convivial meal afterwards - (‘eating for Peace’) where the real trust and understanding are forged.

The world of diplomacy is often more about what is not said, and, on occasions, the personal friendships developed here later proved invaluable during a crisis. During the floods in the winter of 2009, for example, an Israeli Defence Force patrol vehicle was swept away in the inundation. Two soldiers found themselves clinging to a tree in the middle of a ‘river’ 4 km inside Egyptian territory. In order for an Israeli helicopter to rescue them, the trust and understanding, which existed between the MFO and the two nations, were vital in the prompt permission, agreed between the commanders, to save lives.

Day to day living

The MFO mans ‘remote sites’ along the international border line – 214 Km from Med in the North to Red in the South. These sites are populated by soldiers from Fiji, Colombia and the US. Many of them have never seen an infringement of the Treaty of Peace. The headquarters and support services are located in El Gorah (North Camp) and Sharm el Sheikh (South Camp). Each location has its advantages, and challenges. Sharm was once a sleepy fishing village. Now it is a gold mine for the Egyptian economy, generating billions of dollars annually from tourism. Typically the temperature is hotter than hot, year round, and although there are no Kiwis stationed there permanently, it is a good place for rest and recuperation. North Camp (el Gorah) is, by contrast, cooler, more remote and not somewhere people ‘pass through’ on the way to somewhere else. A strong Bedouin presence, and weak Egyptian police force, has led to incidents and accidents near this old Israeli air base. For many MFO members, there is no alternative but to remain in the camp for weeks at a time. There is a pressing need to get to know one’s co-workers and overcome language and cultural differences. The solution lies in sports and social activities. A working week that starts on Sunday morning and ends on Thursday evening, leads to a regulated operational tempo, although the remote sites, the ‘eyes and ears’ of the MFO are perpetually on alert.

The People

This is one of a few locations where kiwis work alongside Aussies in the true Anzac spirit. Constant rotation of personnel means that friendships are forged quickly and no time is lost in formalities. We are also lucky to be able to honour our forebears in the Western Desert, Cairo, Jerusalem, Be’ersheva, and, of course, Gallipoli from the Sinai. I was lucky to go to the El Alamein commemoration in October 2010, which was led by HRH the Duke of York. During the long coach and truck rides in this vast region of the Eastern Mediterranean, there is time to observe local customs unchanged since the beginning of history. An example is the people of Siwa, near Libya, are still untouched by modern concerns. They live in a ruined, mud-built city in the midst of an oasis, populated by a million date palms. Former MFO members from Norway, the Czech Republic, Uruguay and Canada remain friends, having visited such sites and perhaps toiled up Mount Sinai together, for the rest of their lives.

Challenges

The personal rewards of this tour lie only in the limits of one’s imagination. However, the work, and the dangers are real too. There is little recognition at home of the real threat to this multi national force. Since 2005, several lethal terrorist bomb attacks have occurred in Sinai, and against the MFO. Despite the historical lack of conflict between Egypt and Israel in 30 years, this is but a moment compared to the traditional enmity of these neighbours. Such a lightly armed, Western presence in these disputed lands represents a potential lever to apply pressure on governments to heed more closely the causes of local groups. Vigilance and forbearance are the watchwords in the face of provocation.

The incredible thing in this whole region is how life goes on with so few resources. Whilst the MFO feeds 2000 civilian and military personnel daily, the local population survives from the sale of peaches, tomatoes and other produce. A brief growing season produces a cash crop, which supplements a subsistence economy. Palestinians, Bedouin, Nile Egyptians, and Israelis all live within close proximity.
As I arrived at the end of 2008, the windows were rattling to the sound of constant bombing and fighting in the Gaza Strip, just 20 km away. With this backdrop, the celebration of the Christian Christmas was rather stilted.

Rewards

For every six months of service with the ‘Force’, a service person is awarded an MFO medal, or subsequent numeral. I have a number ‘4’. I saw a number ‘11’ on a Fijian corporal’s chest. That’s a lot of time away from home. He told me that many of his friends go home and buy a car, or have a baby, or get divorced. As a committed Christian, he was there purely to support his wife and children. I liked that. I did two different jobs, had the privilege of commanding Kiwis on operations, visited many new places and had the most rewarding outcome. It certainly broadened my horizons. I also felt I had done a little to help. Everyone I met at the MFO felt the same, and it outweighed all the frustrations, homesickness and uncertainty.  40 days and nights in the wilderness is, metaphorically, a life changing episode.

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