NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
THE day was April 30, 2016 when Captain Barbara Musonda first reported for a peacekeeping mission in the town of Birao, Central African Republic (CAR).
It was her first time to be deployed in a country experiencing war where she would be expected to fight at the battlefront alongside her fellow male officers.
She was to be based in Birao, where the headquarters of the Zambia Army Contingent in CAR is situated.
If she had any anxiety about what she was getting herself into prior to her departure, this was reinforced when she touched down at what seemed nothing like an airport in appearance or function.
“When I got to CAR I realised there was nothing to look forward to. There was run-down infrastructure at the airport and there were no roads,” she says.
Growing up, Capt Musonda was familiar with the uniform. Her father, Michael Musonda, once served as Assistant Commissioner under the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Zambia Police Service.
Her aunt, Patricia Musonda, is presently based at the Kabwe Municipal Council as a firefighter.
And so when an opportunity arose for Capt Musonda to join the Zambia Army in January 2011, she grabbed it by the lapels.
Before joining the army, she studied social work at the University of Zambia (UNZA) from 2006 to 2010 and with her undergraduate degree, enlisted in the Zambia Army.
“Because I joined with a degree, I joined as a specialist,” she shares.
In between January and December 2011, she trained under the Zambia Army and upon being successfully commissioned at the end of her training, she was sent to Chipata under the 4th Battalion, Zambian Regiment.
There she was appointed Platoon Commander under the Corps of Infantry or ground forces.
This meant she was given the authority by the President to command a body of men; a responsibility she considered an honour especially as to date there aren’t many female officers that have filled this role.
In March 2014, she was transferred from the Corps of Infantry to the Corps of Medical, which is under the 5th Battalion of the Zambia Regiment in Kaoma.
There she was based at Luena Camp Hospital as part of an HIV/AIDS management programme.
“I found it very fulfilling to be there and worked not only with the men in uniform but with people from different backgrounds,” Capt Musonda says.
She stayed in Kaoma until August this year when she was again transferred from the 5th Battalion, Zambia Regiment to the Zambia Army Headquarters at Arakan Barracks as Protocol Officer.
Between April 2016 and April 2017, the Zambia Army piloted the Female Engagement Teams (FETs) training comprising 30 officers and Capt Musonda was one of the lucky 30.
The training was part of the Zambia Battalion II (ZAMBATT II) deployment and is a concept in line with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) policy requiring all member states to deploy trained FETs by August 2018 in some of their infantry battalions operating in missions with a Protection of Civilians mandate.
FETs are well trained officers with developed skills in the fields of protection of civilians, community engagement, child protection and conflict-related Sexual Violence.
According to the UN, Zambia is considered a leader in ensuring the involvement of female peacekeepers by spearheading the FETs training.
Zambia’s history in peacekeeping dates back to 1988 with the first troops deployed in Chad and to date has deployed a total of 718 military observers and staff officers since 1982.
The UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women and peace and security on October 31, 2000.
The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction.
Among the many lessons peacekeeping taught Capt Musonda was the value of sacrifice.
“Personally as a peacekeeper I sacrificed my life because I left a daughter behind and went to a war stricken country where anything can happen,” she shares.
But taking peace to the people of CAR who she says needed it more than her was far more important than staying home.
During her time as a peacekeeper under the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSCA), her original appointment was as a Gender and Child Protection Officer.
“It meant I had to coordinate the local women and the children. Some of the women were being sexually assaulted and raped by rebels but had no one to talk to,” she explains.
One of the things she had to do to help her adapt was learn a little French which is the official language spoken in CAR.
Capt Musonda also forced herself to learn greetings in Sango, CAR’s other official language and to adjust to the extreme temperatures in the Central African country which on a blistering hot day can rise as high as 46 degrees Celsius.
As her time there progressed, she began to empathise with the people of CAR. She ate their food and drank their sweet tea which is naturally taken while hot and in this way warmed to their culture.
In Birao her day-to-day activities involved coordinating the local women. Many of them had experienced rape and sexual assault as a result of the ongoing conflict but had no one to talk to.
Because CAR is a Muslim country, female peacekeepers are the ideal links to the local women who ordinarily are not allowed to have friendships with males other than their spouses.
More often than not, the local women hold a lot of valuable information and are the secret keepers with indirect links to rebel leaders.
To help the women open up and share their experiences, Capt Musonda got close to them. The war had confined the women to their homes and her task was to organise them into women’s groups.
“They had women’s groups at one point but they were dormant,” she says. “As female peacekeepers we had to win their trust and convince them that we would protect them as they met in these groups.”
Through the groups, the women were able to bond and to speak openly about the trauma they experienced especially as victims of rape and sexual assault during war.
Together with the women of Birao, Capt Musonda and her fellow female peacekeepers regularly cleaned the only hospital in Birao.
Other than the women, the children of Birao were also a delicate group to work with but she found a way to connect with them.
Part of the Zambian contingent in CAR comprised qualified teachers who she approached to teach the children of Birao.
“The children didn’t like school so much, especially in the war environment, so sometimes we organised games for them to play according to their ages,” she shares.
This exercise helped the CAR children experience a part of their childhood they were missing as a result of war.
Outside the geographical and cultural challenges were the gender stereotypes Capt Musonda had to conquer.
“Generally in peacekeeping missions, the number of male officers to female officers is higher. When deployed in a foreign mission, the men will not expect you to work at the same capacity as them, so as women, you are belittled. If you don’t move with your head high and set boundaries, it can be frustrating,” she says.
Capt Musonda has no regrets about joining the army and would gladly lend her service to a peacekeeping mission again.
As for the FETs, she says: “Female Engagement Teams have come in handy because we are the only ones with access to the women in countries such as CAR. That is the greatest thing that I did. It was worth the sacrifice. I learnt so much, gained so much experience and found my daughter in one piece when I returned.”
NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka