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Goodbye, blue berets

Starting this week, Sierra Leoneans in Freetown will miss a familiar sight they’ve grown used to. The resident battalion of Mongolian peacekeepers in their khaki uniforms and blue berets are finally leaving the country.

UN peacekeepers formally left the country in 2008, but the Mongolian Guard Force have protected the Special Court for Sierra Leone since January 2006 and managed the movements of high profile detainees like former RUF rebel leader Issa Sesay and former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Last week, in what was a colourful ceremony, they handed over the Court’s security to the Sierra Leone Police.

A total of 2,300 Mongolian peacekeepers have served at the court but they’ve maintained a quiet presence. I’ve been visiting the court regularly since 2009 and the sight of them perched in their towers always comforted me. The only time I’ve made eye contact is when there’s been a hearing or a screening at the court building.

They rarely left the premises, and when they did it was in secured UN vehicles in full uniform, which made them a bit of a novelty on the streets of Freetown. Though very respectful, they rarely smiled at passers-by and I was often tempted to pull a face, a tourist gag you’d try with one of the Queen’s guards in London.

As part of the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), peacekeeping troops poured in from all over the world from the end of the civil war in 2002 – from India, Zambia, Jordan and Nigeria, just to name a few. Between 2002 and 2004, there were about 20,000 peace keepers in the country.

But the Mongolian contingent is different. In the past, peacekeepers mingled freely with the local population in Sierra Leone and many even intermarried and had children out of wedlock. But none of this for the Mongolians. They have maintained a cautious distance from the Sierra Leonean community. ‘I think this made them more impartial and it’s why we looked up to them,’ says Aminata Sesay, who runs a small banana stall across the road from the court building.

In 2012, Sierra Leone will hold another national election, for the first time without the presence of UN peacekeepers. Some are nervous that the Mongolians have now left too. With issues of unemployment and service delivery close to a boil, the continued presence of the Mongolian guards could have had a calming effect.

However, it’s something that needed to happen. This is part of the handover process at the Special Court from international to national staff. Last year, the detention centre at the court was handed over to the government to be converted into a women’s prison. Increasingly, key positions are being offered to Sierra Leoneans.  

Still, many like me will miss having them around. Cote d’Ivoire has requested for a contingent of Mongolian peacekeepers and I’m sure the blue berets will continue to work tirelessly to maintain peace in West Africa.

All photos by The Special Court for Sierra Leone.

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