On March 8, Thursday, when the entire country was looking forward to enjoying the weekend, things were quite different in the Sal forest of Gazipur district. A troop of at least 20 soldiers in camouflaged uniform and armed with assault rifles was seen blocking a road that passes through the forest. The roadblock was guarded by two heavily armed bunkers built on both sides. Suddenly, a group of armed rebels, yielding Kalashnikovs and machetes, were seen approaching the roadblock. They were shouting slogans and protesting against the troop's deployment in the area. Their leader demanded entry into the camp with all of his armed guards. However, the soldiers said that they would have to submit their arms before entering the camp. At one point, the rebel leader backed down. Suddenly, however, a loud bang stunned everyone. When the rebel leader was retreating, some of his followers ambushed the roadblock from the other side of the forest and opened fire at the guards. The guards hurriedly took shelter in the bunker and aimed at the rebel positions. The intense exchange of fire from both sides shook the tranquil forest.
Just a few hundred metres away from the site of the gunfight, a village was seen cordoned off by the soldiers. Every entry point to the village had been blocked and was being guarded by heavily armed troops. Additional forces were also deployed to cordon off the village from all sides. There was a medical team ready to serve the wounded with emergency treatment. The platoon commander was seen instructing his troops about the tactics of raiding the village without incurring any civilian casualty. As he blew the whistle, the platoon of around 50 soldiers quickly rushed towards the village while aiming their guns at every household. The houses were quickly evacuated and thoroughly searched for illegal weapons and for any contraband materials such as narcotics.
Anyone would think that there was a war going on in Bangladesh's Gazipur district. However, this was neither a war nor the shooting of a war movie in a real-world setting. Many of these soldiers were not even Bangladeshi. These soldiers from 29 different countries came to Bangladesh to receive training on UN peacekeeping missions. The Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training (BIPSOT), with support from the US Pacific Command and Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), has arranged Exercise Shanti Doot-4 to train 500 foreign and 650 Bangladeshi soldiers and officers about different aspects of UN peacekeeping missions. An all-female platoon from Bangladesh army also participated in this exercise. The two above-mentioned scenes were only a glimpse of their 15-day-long field training. For the training, the 56-acre campus of BIPSOT in Rajendrapur cantonment of Gazipur was converted into different real-life locations which UN peacekeepers face in various missions, particularly in the African countries.
In fact, the instructors of BIPSOT established a fictitious African country called Carana on the BIPSOT campus. The “Carana country” consisted of typical African villages, roads, UN designated sites and even the local terrain was modified to look like the African countryside. Major General Md Enayet Ullah, BSP, NDU, PSC says, “Most of the UN peacekeeping missions have been sent to Africa. A huge number of UN peacekeepers are still operating in different African countries. Therefore, we arranged an African setting in the training area and we have tried to give the participants some real-life experiences of what they might face during the peacekeeping missions.”
The 15-day-long exercise includes staff training events and a wide range of field training events such as managing checkpoints, humanitarian assistance, cordon and search operations, protecting UN designated sites, and convoy escort and patrolling. The participants also received training on launching information-led operations, counter-IED (improvised explosive device) training, sexual exploitation and abuse awareness training, field level negotiation and medical first responder training. Experienced officers from the Bangladesh army who have served in many peacekeeping missions all over the world and international trainers of GPOI trained the participants on these issues.
Brigadier General Md Tofael Ahmed, Chief Instructor of BIPSOT, says, “Besides experienced military officers, this time we have also invited civilian experts and subject matter experts to facilitate the training programme. During peacekeeping missions, we have to interact with the local people regularly. We have to understand the local socio-political issues, local culture and how to blend in with the local populace. We, soldiers, are not generally exposed to these skills and experiences. This is why we have also invited civilian experts to train us on these issues which have been proved crucial in the peacekeeping operations.”
Alex Lee, a retired army officer from Singapore, is one such subject matter expert who trained the participants on protecting UN designated sites in a hostile country. “A UN designated site is a place where UN civilian and military officials are stationed. Here, essential supplies for the troops, aid for the affected population and accommodation for the soldiers and officials are established. So one of the most crucial tasks of the peacekeepers is to protect these designated sites.”
Alex also explained the challenges that peacekeepers regularly face while protecting the sites. “Sometimes, local people incited by the rebel groups treat peacekeepers as invaders and try to dislodge the UN troops from the site. Sometimes the rebel groups provoke the peacekeepers to engage in bloody combat. Sometimes, the rebel groups attack the supply depots and unarmed civilian officials to damage the morale of the peacekeepers. This training is designed to teach the troops about protecting the sites in such realities while applying minimum force.”
As part of the training, Alex Lee arranged the simulation attack by the rebel group on the UN designated site (as described above) and demonstrated how the peacekeepers protected it without any civilian casualties. Likewise, some peacekeepers were seen taking training on managing roadblocks with a friendly approach to the civilians. Private Altantsetseg is a soldier from the Mongolian army receiving training in this Exercise Shanti Doot-4. He shares, “There is a huge difference between combat training and peacekeeping training. While taking this training, I always have to keep in my mind that I have to ensure minimum application of force. For instance, while checking people at the roadblock, I have to extend a warm welcome, arrange female guards and cooperate with the local people as much as possible. It's a completely new but extremely exciting and useful experience for me.”
This exercise has also ensured friendly exchanges between the army officers and soldiers of different countries. Major Ranjan from the Sri Lankan army has received this training with many Bangladeshi servicemen. Major Omar from Bangladesh army is now one of his best friends. “The climate, terrain and Bangladeshi people's psyche are so similar to Sri Lanka that I hardly felt I was away from my country. Bangladeshi army officers have gathered valuable experiences in UN peacekeeping missions. I think the army of many nations can learn a lot about peacekeeping operations from these experienced officers of the Bangladesh army,” he shares.
However, Exercise Shanti Doot-4 is only one of the many training sessions that BIPSOT has arranged since its inception in 2002. It is the first and only training institute in the world which has been certified by the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations to provide pre-deployment training of the contingents of the peacekeepers. The institute conducts 32 courses every year, some of which are designed for individual peacekeepers and some are conducted jointly with partners. The institute has also launched online courses with its online pre-deployment training materials. “Besides regular courses like UN Staff Officers' Course, UN Military Observers' Course, UN Logistics Officers' Course, UN Contingent Commanders' Course, UN Civil-Military Coordination Course, we have also launched courses on civilian protection that include Women, Peace and Security Course, Conflict Related Sexual Violence Course, International Humanitarian Law Course and Security Sector Reform Course,” says Major General Md Enayet Ullah. He also states that foreign experts both from civil and military backgrounds are coming to teach at BIPSOT and instructors from BIPSOT are also visiting military colleges of various countries to train their soldiers about peacekeeping. In fact, through BIPSOT's resourceful training facilities, Bangladesh has become the forerunner of peacekeeping training in the world.
In 1988, the Bangladesh army made a modest start in UN peacekeeping operations by sending a group of 15 officers to the UN Iraq-Iran military observer group. In 2014, Bangladesh became the highest contributor of military personnel to UN peacekeeping forces. Bangladeshi peacekeepers have achieved remarkable success in peacekeeping operations all over the world. Sierra Leone, where Bangladeshi peacekeepers served for more than 10 years to restore peace and stability, has recognised Bengali as one of its official languages in honour of the valiant peacekeepers. There is a major road in Ivory Coast's Danane town which is called Bangladesh Road in memory of the contributions of Bangladeshi peacekeepers. So far, 1,32,618 peacekeepers from Bangladesh have served in 40 countries in 54 UN missions which has made the country one of the leading UN peacekeeping countries of the world. However, this success and honour have come at the cost of 136 lives in different peacekeeping missions. Eighty-four of them belong to the Bangladesh army, one to the Bangladesh navy and three to the Bangladesh air force. Currently, Bangladesh army, air force and navy personnel are deployed as peacekeepers in five countries and in 11 ongoing missions. Bangladesh has sent all female police units to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. According to BIPSOT officials, the country has so far deployed 1,680 female peacekeepers all over the world.
Within 30 years, Bangladesh security forces have earned remarkable glory in restoring peace and stability in troubled parts of the world. With training institutions like BIPSOT and its experienced, highly trained officers, Bangladesh has now established itself as a trainer of peacekeeping operations. More than 10,000 soldiers and officials of different countries have received training on peacekeeping operations in BIPSOT. Thanks to these contributions, Bangladesh has established itself as a country which fights for peace, not for occupation or for waging war. It is the responsibility of Bangladesh's security forces to uphold this stature in the years to come.
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan is a feature writer for Star Weekend magazine, The Daily Star. He can be contacted at email@example.com.