CAPAS, Philippines (AFP) – After nearly two decades on the frontlines against extremist insurgents in the Philippines’ violence-plagued south, Army Captain Teodoro Nicor is looking forward to guarding a war zone abroad.
Nicor is training with hundreds of other battle-hardened troops to join a United Nations’ peacekeeping mission overseas, continuing a tradition that began more than 50 years ago when Filipino soldiers went to the Congo.
“We are very excited,” said Nicor, 39. “There is fear but we have prepared really well for this.”
The Philippines participation in the UN’s blue helmet brigades came under the spotlight last month when 75 soldiers fended off an attack by al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.
While the incident made world headlines and prompted the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping force from the Syrian side of the territory, training for Nicor and his colleagues is very much focused on charm offensives.
In this photo taken on September 11, Filipino peacekeeper trainees (L) taking their position during a drill simulating a hostile environment in a peacekeeping mission at the peackeepers training center in Capas town, Tarlac province, north of Manila. To help guard the world’s war zones, the Philippines plucks soldiers from the frontlines against al-Qaeda-linked militants and communist insurgents. But battle-hardened as these “warrior peacekeepers” are, they are also trained to turn on the charm when deployed to UN missions in Syria, Haiti and Liberia – AFP
At a military base dedicated solely to UN peacekeeping training, Nicor last week led a seven-vehicle convoy through a mock war zone to deliver supplies when they were stopped by “civilians” desperate for food.
With the rifle slung on his back pointed to the ground, he sought out the group’s leader and offered a handshake while his men in blue helmets and bulletproof vests stood on guard behind him.
“My friend, good morning,” a smiling Nicor said.
Angry, repeated demands for food ensued, with Nicor slowly defusing the situation through calm negotiations while maintaining a friendly demeanour.
Colonel Roberto Ancan, commander of the training camp, said Filipinos brought a unique mix to the UN’s peacekeeping missions with their internationally renowned friendliness and battlefield experience.
“We wave, we smile, we shake hands, we greet good morning, good afternoon and good evening and in the local language as well,” said Ancan, himself a former peacekeeper in Timor Leste.
He said the Filipinos had a term for themselves that reflected their unique qualities: “warrior peacekeepers”.
The warrior element was on full display in the Golan Heights stand-off, after the rebels surrounded the Filipinos at their outposts and demanded their weapons.
The rebels had just launched a similar assault against 45 Fijian peacekeepers, who surrendered and were taken hostage.
In what proved to be a highly controversial move, the Filipinos defied an order from their UN commander, an Indian, to also surrender, and eventually escaped after four days.
The Fijians were released after two weeks.
The Philippines lodged a formal complaint against the UN commander for issuing the surrender order, as President Benigno Aquino heaped praise on his troops.
“Every Filipino soldier there, from the privates to the colonel, showed cleverness and expertise,” Aquino said.
The trainees at the base, in the farming community of Capas about three hours’ drive from Manila, said they were not surprised that their compatriots did not surrender.
“Our guns are like our wives, we don’t give them up,” Nicor said.
Nicor speaks with the experience of having spent most of his career in the southern Philippines, where extremist rebels and communist guerrillas have been waging two of Asia’s longest insurgencies.
He is the leader of a battalion whose members were selected to join the UN efforts because of their success battling the extremist rebels, who have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent homeland.