My ‘Milluim’ as a Peacebuilder in Timor-Leste

“You are a warrior”

my new colleague told me…

I’m a retired warrior”- I replied.

“Bullshit”- he called out.  he was right.

I did my compulsory military service just like anyone else in Israel. Ok, I added on an extra year and a bit and became an officer; but I am really nothing out of the ordinary. I was an infantry instructor, then a lieutenant in charge of armored personnel carrier training (APCs) and finally a lieutenant in charge of basic training for female infantry recruits. I enjoyed my service immensely, but I wouldn’t call fixing APC’s at 4am in the desert my passion or calling…in fact, I was certain I wanted to promote positive change in my career in a more direct way.

I left the military five years ago almost to the day, and left Israel four years ago to begin my undergraduate degree at Columbia University. I’ve since then moved on to a post-graduate degree studying Development and Conflict Resolution at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

During my time at Columbia I’ve met military veterans from around the world who’ve become my peers and best friends. I am astonished as to how the conversation about what I did during that 3.5-year stint way back when- is one I continue to have regularly. Hadn’t I moved on already? It seemed as though my friends back home had stopped talking and thinking about their service long ago, so I wondered, had I really peaked in the military? I began questioning whether peoples’ interest in my “sexy” military story was genuine, or even positive. After all, I hate the idea of war, and I don’t want to glorify my service, or that of anyone else (especially in a military that is also occupying others). I’ve often questioned whether there is room for me in a career in peacebuilding with my past. This summer, during my time interning for UN Women in Timor Leste, I answered that question. I learned first-hand that it is my military service that has given me the strength and skills to become a warrior of peace today.

When you’re born in Jerusalem, every day means something. Existence is so fragile we celebrate it, defend it, and contemplate it daily. I am certain my Jerusalemite upbringing has something to do with my choice of a career in peacebuilding.  But this summer I was reminded once again, that besides being born in a conflict zone, my stint as an officer, commanding, teaching, leading, under demanding conditions –  is what makes me a better peacebuilder.

Stay with me, I know I’m supposed to choose, Military equals ‘bad’ and peace equals ‘good’; or Military equals ‘necessary’ and peace equals ‘naïve’. But the naïve ones are those who don’t see the connection between the two.

Throughout my studies I’ve been humbled to meet humanity in full force. I’ve engulfed myself in the study of the UN- diplomacy, development, peace and security. I’ve met mentors who were right there- during the atrocities of Somalia and Rwanda in the 90s, and others doing field research today in active conflict zones, such as the D.R. Congo. It became more and more evident, that I wanted to be part of this imperfect platform of multilateralism called the UN. Where do the imperfections of the UN and Military meet? In the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).

Yes, that bizarre observation unit that has been placed in the Golan Heights since 1948, is an example of UN Peacekeeping. In fact, it was the first of its kind. Today, there are many other examples, and mandates vary from place to place. But peacekeepers often bear the brunt of having to operate between a rock and hard place, in the most complex war-torn environments. They are criticized (sometimes rightfully) from all directions and are bound to the terribly political and bureaucratic UN Security Council. Always scraping for resources and adequate training, one of my professors calls peacekeeping “peace on the cheap”. Yet to those civilians on the ground, peacekeepers could mean the difference between life and death, between hope and despair. And if you look close enough, at each individual soldier, you’ll find hope of making an actual difference.

That is where I found myself this summer, working in Timor Leste (East Timor) with the Australian and Timorese military, to support a pilot peacekeeping training for the Timorese forces. It was a UN internship that got me there, and it was my military experience that helped me make a difference.

Timor Leste’s history is that of brutal Portuguese colonialism followed by even more brutal Indonesian occupation and genocide. They finally gained independence in 2002, but the UN in effect ran the country until the last peacekeeping operation ended in December 2012. In 2006 an internal crisis erupted between the military and police, which reflected deeper east/west divide. Between March and June 2006, at least 1650 homes burned or destroyed.[1] This was the last large-scale violence in the country, traveling there now you’d barely be able to tell of its violent past. The Timorese have been incredibly forgiving toward the Portuguese and even Indonesians, distinguishing between the Indonesian people and their brutal government’s decisions.

Today, Timor Leste is finally standing on its own two feet. It is still ridden with development challenges and relies heavily on international assistance, but it’s doing so on its own terms. The Timorese, remembering the support from international peacekeepers, are hoping to themselves become a troop contributing country one day. The government also launched in 2016 their own National Action Plan to implement the global Women Peace and Security Agenda (WPS). The Women Peace and Security agenda was adopted as a Security Council resolution in 2000 (SCR 1325) and emphasizes for the first time the importance of women participation in all aspects of peace and security. It recognizes that women are both some of the most vulnerable populations and victims of war but are also important agents of peace.

My internship at UN Women was billed as a position that would support the implementation of a Timorese national plan for Women, Peace and Security. Specifically, to promote women participation and gender mainstreaming in civil society, as well as the security sector. This sounded extremely interesting on paper, but for those unfamiliar with (unpaid) UN internships, the actual job functions usually consist of desk research, and attending meetings with your supervisor, at best. So when UN Women took me on as an intern to map out opportunities for them to collaborate with the Timorese military, I was warned that this would be mostly -what did I tell you? Desk research.

On the third week of my internship I was asked at the last minute to attend a high-level military promotion ceremony, and at the event, speak with to the Australian military about any upcoming opportunities. Back in NYC, I would never have been invited to such an event, but in Timor, the UN Women office is small and there is so much to do, we have to use every man or woman we have.

I felt strangely at home at the military ceremony, in a language and culture I understood nothing about; military culture after all is transnational. After the ceremony I scoped out one of the Australian Captains and introduced myself politely.

“Oh, you’re the sniper…” he said, apparently the word had been going around.

“well, yes, I was, a sniper instructor I guess, but no – here I’m just the intern…”

“well how bout you come down and teach the platoon a lesson or two”

“About sniping??”, I was highly uncomfortable with this, and definitely thought this wasn’t in my UN Women Peace and Security intern job description.

“no, about whatever you’d like”.

Turns out the Timorese Military, with the support of the Australians were opening a Peace Operations Training Center, and were about to begin piloting a peacekeeping course. They were interested in working with UN Women, as they understood the importance of the WPS agenda and including women in peacekeeping. My limited military experienced provided the perfect entry point. A week later, I was invited to the opening ceremony of the Peace Operations Center and pilot course and came with a Timorese colleague from the office. We were the only two women in the crowd. I began to understand how much of an opportunity this could present.

My supervisors graciously agreed to let me run with this opportunity, and so I drafted out a cooperation plan between UN Women and the new Peace Operations Center for the pilot course. First of all, I would be present, because showing up, observing, and having the soldiers see a female in a position of authority, is a first step in any collaboration. Later on, I would also support the Timorese and Australians with preparations for lessons on topics within UN Women’s expertise, such as conflict related sexual violence. Finally, I would take that Australian Captain’s offer, and plan my own two lessons to teach.

As the weeks went by, I observed training, and through my observations, tried to adapt the UN training materials to real world conditions – translating theory to practice.  I, along with the other trainers, became the point-person for difficult questions, often stated in blunt and unfiltered terms. For instance, one soldier asked: “If a woman offers me sex while I am on mission, can I take it?” we had to find ways to respond to stereotypes and prejudices, such as: “why is it that black people seem to have more wars?”. I was the only female to come in contact with these pilot troops during their training, I had more proving to do.

I chose to teach two classes: one on my transition from military to peacekeeping, and another about ethics and ethical dilemmas. I began by telling the soldiers where I came from, sharing our common human experience of conflict: “you see, we also had a conflict in Israel 2006…” I explained. The term “ethical” did not translate easily into the local language, but “spiritual” meant something.  So, I told the soldiers that just their technical military training is important, they also needed ‘spiritual’ training in order to be good soldiers/peacekeepers. We talked about their values, where they were acquired – at home, church, among friends – and what happens when different values clash.

At the end of my second lesson I decided to take the platoon outside and practice some basic scenario based ethical dilemmas. Turns out that role-plays – a common training strategy for the Israeli military – was unfamiliar to these troops. Acting out situations in the field turned out to be a huge hit and I was asked to incorporate some ethical dilemmas into the final field exercise the next week.  I recruited some spare ‘actors’ from the adjacent language training center and gave them characters to embody during the field exercise. The characters were those the soldiers might encounter on a peacekeeping mission, such as a local female police officer, a wounded civilian, an internally displaced person, chief of a village etc… and each character presented an ethical dilemma the soldiers would need to address.

I found myself in a familiar space, observing lessons, making suggestions, teaching lessons, talking to people of all backgrounds and cultivating relationships. Most importantly, I found myself supporting soldiers who were eager to learn more, were eager to be given the tools to become the best soldiers/peacekeepers they could be. Their questions were intelligent and hard, real, unpolished – as far away from the UN you would expect.  They were the ones on the ground who might have to grapple with an often-unimaginable reality. I felt satisfied knowing that, regardless of whether world politics sorted itself out, perhaps these soldiers, would think twice now before raping women, or think twice before passing by a person in need, and this would make a real difference.

At the closing ceremony of the month-long pilot peacekeeping course, it was clear that we had made an impact.   The entire training staff emphasized the need for more ‘spiritual’ or ‘ethical’ training, UN Women were recognized and thanked, and the Brigadier General acknowledged the need to have women participate in the next peacekeepers’ training course. By the end of my internship, we had established a sustainable relationship between UN Women and the Timorese Peace Operations Training Center.  Timorese and Australian military representatives have since visited DPKO in NYC, as well as sending their first female Lieutenant on peacekeeping training so she can further support what we began.

I was able to establish this relationship, not because of my prestigious Columbia Academic training, but because I remembered how it was to try and teach a new platoon about “values”. Because I had stood in front of hot, tired, uninterested soldiers, hundreds of time. Because I knew how to explain things simply and cared about doing so. Because I could relate to the Timorese with my own stories about conflict and an imperfect homeland.

I wasn’t just at the right place and the right time- I also had the right skills. Skills I obtained during my military service. Whether I am pro or against this or that political agenda back home at the moment, is irrelevant. The fact is, I was able to transform an experience of my past and use it for what I hope is the betterment of human kind today. For that I am grateful.[2]

[1] Wassel, Todd. Timor-Leste: Links Between Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Durable Solutions to Displacement. Brookings institute, 2014 (p.g. 4).

[2] I would like to acknowledge Columbia University’s Graduate Global Policy Fellowship for supporting my work in Timor-Leste. I would also like to thank my Colleagues in Timor-Leste, especially UN Women and the Australian and Timorese Military, for all their support.

About the Author
Gabriella Ginsberg-Fletcher was born and raised in a religious pluralistic community in Jerusalem. She has spent the past 6 years studying in New York, most recently completing her MPA in Economic and Political Development and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
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