Since 2006, UNIFIL has had a sizable presence with its, on average, more than 11,000 peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. A large portion of the Mission’s daily operational activities has been and continues to be patrolling through its area of operations helping to maintain stability in the south.
What the people of the south mostly get to see is UNIFIL peacekeepers wearing their blue helmets and protective gear patrolling with their vehicles and sometimes on foot.
It is too easy to forget that there are people, normal people like you and me, behind all these numbers, statistics and operational activities.
The human connection between host communities of the south and UNIFIL peacekeepers can run thin on a day-to-day basis, especially because UNIFIL contingents rotate on a 6-month basis, regularly changing their personnel.
Just last week, peacekeepers from the Italian Battalion (ITALBATT) went on a market walk in the town of Aaita al Jabal. This is not the first time, ITALBATT and almost all other UNIFIL battalions conduct market walks and have been doing so for years.
Technically market walks fall within UNIFIL’s operational activities, but it is really about slowing things down and getting to know each other. Blue helmets are replaced by blue berets and protective gear and weapons are left behind.
Paola, a Sergeant from ITALBATT, enters a shop with her colleagues to look for gifts to take back home. Zeina, the shop keeper, asks her where in Italy she is from. Paola responds that they are all from the Aosta Brigade in Sicily, which is where this current battalion hails from. The conversation continues and soon a common ground is found. Parts of Italy and the weather are very similar to Lebanon, and did you know that olive oil might have made its way from Lebanon to Italy by way of the Phoenicians, hundreds of years ago? There are smiles, jokes, laughter, handshakes, and invitations from both sides.
This is why peacekeepers do market walks.
There are also other benefits to these interactions. Peacekeepers buy products from small shop keepers, helping to support the local economy, while the Lebanese have an opportunity to ask questions and get clarifications on what the peacekeepers are here to do. Female peacekeepers are an integral part of these market walks, facilitating the interaction with Lebanese women and thus further enriching and broadening the overall experience.
Finally, all UNIFIL market walks take place alongside soldiers of the Lebanese Armed Forces. This is part of some of the activities that the two forces conduct jointly, but it provides the soldiers the same opportunity as the peacekeepers, to get to know the people of the south on a more personal level.