SHAMAA, Lebanon: The work of UNIFIL, from military to media operations, is carried out by peacekeepers of both genders in south Lebanon, where it’s not uncommon to see a woman driving an armored vehicle on patrol or removing cluster bombs side by side with male soldiers.
UNIFIL’s Italian contingent has around 90 female officers and soldiers at the contingent’s base in the village of Shamaa, east of the town of Naqoura.
Sgt. Manuela, who had just returned from leading a patrol, said that she volunteered for the Italian army in 2008 and this was her first overseas mission.
“I’m not married, but I dream of getting married and staying in the service. Of course I will try to reconcile marriage and service,” said Manuela, who arrived two months ago from southern Italy.
She added, while taking off her bullet-proof vest, that she was on patrol when roadside bombs struck the Italian contingent on May 27 north of Sidon, wounding six Italian peacekeepers.
“I was very saddened, but I thanked God that there were no casualties and that they would see their families again. I prayed for them.”
Manuela believes peace can be achieved when people across the world are open and tolerant of each other.
Another member of the Italian contingent, Roberta, who, like all of the women interviewed, preferred to give only her first name, works to clear mines. The job requires her to carry explosive detectors and wear protective clothing. “My protective clothing and steel helmet are very heavy and I’m carrying over 15 kilos, but it’s better than getting injured.”
“I’m here so that children can play peacefully and this gives me satisfaction,” Roberta continued. “It’s a strange feeling when I dismantle a bomb. It’s over, no lives were lost, and the bomb isn’t there anymore.”
Roberta refused to say how many bombs she and her colleagues had dismantled, as it is considered a military secret, but she said that her team works together so that others can live.
“Yes we feel threatened, and every morning death approaches us as we enter a field. I never feel safe, but I’m here so that others can live. When I enter a field, I make sure I remain calm and think only of my work,” Roberta said.
Asked for her thoughts on her current assignment, Roberta said “Lebanon is a gorgeous country and its nature is very similar to that of the island of Sicily in southern Italy.”
Fabiana, who works in the media center in the Italian Army as an assistant to the contingent’s official spokesperson, also finds her work fulfilling. “I’m very happy with my choice and thrilled that I’m serving in this country.”
Through its Civil Affairs and Civil Military Coordination, UNIFIL provides assistance and basic services to communities, including rehabilitating roads, offering free medical services, and conducting training programs in fields ranging from IT and foreign languages to taekwondo and bread making.
“It makes me very happy when news of our work is published in the newspapers, especially the projects we carry out in south Lebanon,” Fabiana said. “Newspapers here are a link between us and the people.”
Giulia, another female peacekeeper, is always in close contact with local communities through her work at the Civil Military Cooperation Office.
According to Giulia, CIMIC provides services such as implementing infrastructure projects and providing farmers with equipment, as well as assisting schools and students and providing aid to the Lebanese Army.
When asked if the contingent was biased toward particular villages, Giulia said, “Of course not. We treat people equally and what’s important is to see the smile across their faces.”
Giulia was moved by the work of tobacco farmers in south Lebanon, saying that she will never forget how families came together to harvest the leaves and dry them in the sun.
“It’s difficult work,” she said. “These villagers sacrifice a lot.”
Another thing that will stay with her is Lebanese food, which the peacekeeper described as diverse and delicious, especially mezze such as mouttabal and hummus.