Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Oberlene Smith-Whyte, is making an impact as a United Nations peacekeeper, winning the respect of her colleagues and even insurgents in some of the most inhospitable countries around the globe.
United Nations Peacekeeper, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Oberlene Smith-Whyte.
The police officer, who has made the Government and people of Jamaica proud, through her work in war-torn countries such as Namibia, Liberia and Darfur in Africa, describes her missions as “adventures of a lifetime.”
Relating her mission experience during the First Official Commemorative Ceremony and Exhibition of International Day of UN Peacekeepers at the Hilton Kingston hotel in New Kingston recently, DSP Smith-Whyte tells a story of hardships, violence, but eventual triumph and peace.
She recalls the dread she felt at the briefing before leaving for that first mission to Namibia. “We were told when we were going to Namibia that we (might) not come back to Jamaica,” she tells her audience. “We were told that we were all going to die.”
She remembers wives and mothers crying for their sons and husbands as they departed the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston for the African country, out of fear that their family members would not return home alive. “But we went, we saw and we conquered,” she says proudly.
The trip to Liberia was even more terrifying and life threatening, she recalls.
“We thought we would not survive. Everybody wanted to come home, some people cried and said they wouldn’t make it, that they want to go back to Jamaica,” she says.
But, it was in Darfur, where she spent two years, that she was to make a significant impact. A province of Sudan, Darfur, since 2003, has been ravaged by ongoing guerilla conflicts, with killings, torture, rape, and destruction of homes and farms, stemming from long-standing tension between the country’s black population and the nomadic Arabs.
Despite international outrage, Darfur remains one of the world’s worst human rights and humanitarian catastrophes.
With more than 2.7 million people having fled their homes, and living in camps around Darfur’s main towns, with little access to basic amenities, DSP Smith-Whyte explains that it was a complete culture shock when she arrived in the country. “Darfur, I can tell you, (it is like) the beginning of time,” she relates. “This was where we got the real experience of mission life.”
She says that during her stay in Darfur, all 100 female peacekeepers shared a massive tent.
DSP Smith-Whyte says that the inhumane and disrespectful manner in which women are treated in the Sudanese region broke her heart. “My first day out in the village, I returned to my tent and I cried uncontrollably,” she says.
She explains that in Darfur if it is suspected that a woman is having an extramarital affair, she is mutilated. “A limb is cut off and she is left to die,” she says. “One hundred per cent female mutilation and circumcision is practiced in Darfur and they (do not have access) to medical services. They use hot water and scissors, a razor blade, a piece of old knife or anything that is sharp to do that job and it is up to the woman to survive or bleed to death.”
The deputy superintendent says she and the other Jamaican peacekeepers, particularly the women, did everything they could to make the lives of the women of Darfur a little bit easier during their stay in the country.
While in Darfur, DSP Smith-Whyte was selected to serve as a Team Fight Commander, a position equivalent to a Divisional Commander in Jamaica and the highest rank any Jamaican woman peacekeeper has achieved so far. She says that her selection was greeted with some opposition. “I was told that I would not succeed, because this is a patriarchal society and no woman can come here and make it,” she says.
She reveals that during the mission, she visited the town of Tawila, which has been dubbed ‘Deadly Tawila’ because of the horrific acts of violence that occur in that area. “Tawila has a number of rebel groups and only one of the groups signed the Darfur peace agreement, all the others are against the UN,” she says. “So our task, as UN peacekeepers, was to get them onboard to be a part of the peace agreement,” she says.
DSP Smith-Whyte explains however that because of the known viciousness and fearlessness of the rebel groups in Tawila, her team members refused to accompany her on patrols into the area. “This was understandable because of the difficult nature of Darfur. You could go out and never come back, you could be kidnapped, that has taken place quite frequently,” she says.
“So, I took it on myself to go out,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘my Government sent me here and I have to do something in Darfur before I go back home.”
The Team Fight Commander arranged a meeting with the military commander in Darfur and begged him to accompany her to meet with the rebel groups. “The commander said ‘yes I will come with you to meet the rebels’ and from the 90 police officers that I commanded in Darfur, only one volunteered to come with me.
“Even the one language assistant that we had said he would not come with us, because the rebel group that we were going to meet was very feared,” she says.
DSP Smith-Whyte says that as they neared the location of the rebels, the members began to surround her team.
“We were down in a valley and we started seeing all the rebel vehicles start coming in and positioning themselves strategically. My heart was (beating fast). I said ‘Lord this seems to be my last day on earth, why did I come?” she recalls.
She says the members of the rebel group began to push them around, interrogating them and intimidating them with guns. “I was fearful and nervous,” she says. .but when the time came for me to talk and I introduced myself as a Jamaican and told them that the Jamaican Government sent me there, they said ‘you stop there my sister, you are welcomed.”
DSP says from that first meeting she was able to develop a relationship with the rebel groups and their leaders in Darfur, which eventually led to them signing a peace treaty with the UN. She says she developed a reputation as an efficient and capable Jamaican peacekeeper and did much to raise the Jamaica flag even higher.
“We have no idea in Jamaica, what Jamaica means to people abroad. You tell someone you are Jamaican and 50 per cent of your job is done, we need to protect that,” she implores.
Chief Unda She says at the end of her two years in Darfur (her stay was extended an extra year) the same men she was told would never accept her, held a demonstration to convince the authorities to again extend her term. “They called me Chief Unda’, that is the name they called the men in the highest rank, that is what they started calling me. Me, who they said would not have succeeded because I am a woman, but I set out in my mind that I would make a difference, because I am a Jamaican.”
DSP Smith-Whyte says her aim is to not only help to bring peace and security to war-torn countries around the globe, but to also inspire women and girls from all walks of life. She also wants young Jamaican girls to know that deep down inside, no matter their socio-economic background or educational achievements, they all possess the ability to accomplish their dreams and overcome life’s obstacles.
Jamaica’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions began in the 1980s with 23 Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) officers deployed to Namibia. Since then, Jamaica has increased its presence to having its nationals serve under the UN flag in some of the most difficult and hostile areas of the earth.
Over 60 peacekeepers from Jamaica, since 1989, have joined the UN and contributed substantially in bringing peace and stability to troubled countries around the globe.
Members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) have participated in peacekeeping missions across the globe, including in El Salvador, Liberia, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Namibia. They have been engaged in tasks such as promoting reconciliation, strengthening the security sector and the rule of law and supporting democratic elections.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade in collaboration with the JCF recently hosted Jamaica’s first official ceremony to commemorate the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. The Day is celebrated annually on May 29.
The Jamaican peacekeepers were presented with certificates in honour of their invaluable contribution to various UN peacekeeping missions.