By Lê Hương
They are beautiful, emotional and vulnerable like other women. Yet their strong determination and bravery have made them special, and given the assets they need to fulfill heavy tasks usually associated with men.
Female officers and doctor of Field Hospital 2 say farewell to colleagues and families to depart for the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan on November 26, 2019. VNA/VNS Photo Dương Giang
Covering dry land with green
Lt Col Nguyễn Thị Liên joined the UN Peacekeeping Forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) in June 2019, where her main duty is holding training classes for newcomers.
Leaving her family behind and job as an English teacher at Hà Nội’s School for Officers of the Vietnamese Special Forces, she said she wanted to experience a multi-national working environment.
Liên has taught many locals to plant vegetables. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Thị Liên
“I hope to be a role model for my children, especially my daughter who is just starting her military career,” she told Việt Nam News via email. “I want her to learn from me the strength, energy and determination a soldier needs.”
She is the only woman in a group of six Vietnamese officers who are now working with the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Bangui.
“When I took on the mission, I did not think that I would have any obstacles just because I am a woman,” she said.
“I thought I could do anything men do in the army. The most difficult thing for me at the time was that whether I was strong enough to endure the hardships in a long time. I was already 47.”
CAR has two seasons: rainy and dry. It's hot all the time, but the rain naturally makes it easier to grow vegetables, while providing precious water resources for the people living there.
Locals appreciate Liên's support in gardening. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Thị Liên
“No water, no electricity, and the internet is very expensive,” she said. “We have to do something about it.”
Liên has tried to plant vegetables and beans for her and her colleagues from other countries, as well as the locals.
“My small garden here is where I spend my rare free time and forget my homesickness,” she said. “It’s also a way to connect with international colleagues and locals.”
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) includes peacekeeping, economic development, politics and infrastructure, which locals are really in need of. Both men and women can join this mission. The difficulties the men face are the very advantages the women thrive on.
“Women tend to be more tolerant with poor people, who can be reserved with strangers about their conditions,” Liên said.
"That’s why women can do better a job relating to locals," she explained.
“Besides my office training work, I have made contacts with the people here and shown them how to plant vegetables and beans. I've also helped women take care of their infants,” she said.
Aubin Pamphai, a local Liên taught to plant vegetables, highly appreciates her support.
Aubin Pamphai in his garden. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Thị Liên
“Every Sunday morning, she comes to teach us,” he said. “At first we tried one or two kinds of vegetables, then more. My garden just gets greener and greener. My trouble now is worms and insects. I hope someone can show me how to make pesticide.”
When Liên took a few weeks off to return home at the end of last year, she returned with special gifts for local friends such as seeds and kitchenware to make various kinds of food from cassava flour, which is the main staple in CAR.
Liên teaches locals to make various cakes from cassava flour. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Thị Liên
Liên said she sometimes cries when she talks to her daughter, who is studying in Russia, while her husband and son are in Việt Nam.
“I know my husband sympathises with me,” she said. “I just try to do best. I feel happy here as I am protected by locals.”
Liên is popular among locals as a consultant in healthcare, gardening and cooking. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Thị Liên
“When I step out of my house here, I can see many people smiling at me, shouting ‘Việt Nam, Việt Nam!'.
“I know there is no better protection than within the warm arms of locals.”
Value of peace
Younger than Liên, Maj Đoàn Kim Cúc did not hesitate when she accepted her mission as a doctor of internal medicine at the level-2 Field Hospital 2 in South Sudan.
Her main task is caring for people working in the UN peacekeeping forces there. Besides, she also takes turns with her colleagues to work in the kitchen and guard the hospital.
“I think the living conditions here are a challenge to even men, let alone women,” she said.
“Here, female doctors share the same tasks as their male colleagues. I’m fairly optimistic. I miss my husband and small daughter a lot, but I think this is a good experience for my military career. I’m proud to make a small contribution to keeping peace in this small and poor country.”
On International Women’s Day every year, Cúc usually receives greetings from her male colleagues while her husband prepares a nice dinner after taking her out shopping.
“This year, on Women’s Day, I just wish for peace for myself and luck for my family at home,” she said.
“Living in a country with lots of conflict like South Sudan, more than ever, I understand the value of peace. I just want to try my best to fulfill my mission here and stay safe till the day I finish my one-year term.”
According to statistics from the Việt Nam Department of Peacekeeping Operations, since 2014, Việt Nam has sent over 100 officers, doctors and staff to UN peacekeeping missions in CAR and South Sudan, 23 of whom are women.
Eleven female officers and doctors have completed their missions.
Lt Col (then Maj) Đỗ Thị Hằng Nga was the first Vietnamese female officer to be sent to the UN peacekeeping mission. She worked in South Sudan between 2018 and 2019 as a watchkeeper. At the end of her term she was awarded the United Nations Medal for her "outstanding - truly exceptional and rare performance".
Lt Col Đỗ Thị Hằng Nga and locals in South Sudan. Photo courtesy of Việt Nam Department of Peacekeeping Operations
At the moment, 63 Vietnamese doctors and staff including eleven women are working at Field Hospital 2 in South Sudan.
Alain Le Roit, former Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations at the UN, appreciated Việt Nam’s role in the UN mission in Africa.
“The participation of Vietnamese military officers and doctors, both male and female, has been highly appreciated when more of them have been joining in and many of them have achieved recognisable success,” he said.
“In peacekeeping missions, female officers have played a very important role,” said Deputy Defence Minister Sr Lt Gen Nguyễn Chí Vịnh. “They have proved that in such a severe environment, they can perform as well as their male colleagues.
“Before there were hardly any female officers found on UN missions,” he said. “But now, the good news is that the number of women registering and being qualified has surpassed the demand.”
According to Foreign Deputy Minister Lê Hoài Trung, Việt Nam’s participation in peacekeeping forces has helped gained more trust from other countries.
“To many African and Latin American nations, Việt Nam is a good example of fighting to gain independence and achieving lots of success in building a country after war,” he said.
“Joining UN peacekeeping missions shows that Việt Nam is an active member of the UN, and is willing to contribute to noble efforts to prevent conflicts, dissolve conflicts and contribute to developing the economies and societies of member countries. VNS