DR Congo

DR Congo: At the sharp end in North Kivu

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Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo: While UNV volunteers are a familiar sight in UN peacekeeping missions, not all of them work directly alongside the 'Blue Helmets'. Kristen Petillon, however, works hand-in-hand with the military to help protect civilians.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joint Protection Teams or 'JPTs' typically consist of both military personnel, UN Police (UNPOL) and delegates from the UN mission's civilian sections, such as Civil Affairs, Human Rights, Child Protection and Public Information: they may also include staff from non-UN entities such as NGOs.

"The principal objective of the JPTs is to support the 'Blue Helmets' deployed within certain zones, and to analyze security situations and assess threats to the civilian population," explains Associate Civil Affairs Officer Kristen Petillon, one of six UNV volunteers deployed with JPTs in North Kivu.

"In practice," he continues, "the JPT assesses situations, identifies the threats to people and, in conjunction with the 'Blue Helmets', formulates appropriate responses."

"The instruments we can use are varied, from a military deployment to night patrols or sensitizing populations to certain themes (such as sexual and gender-based violence)."

Mr. Petillon points out that JPTs must come up with innovative solutions to the situations they encounter in the field. This can have many facets, from building relationships with key local actors , implanting alert mechanisms (such as cellphone text messages), interacting with local authorities or sensitizing armed groups to humanitarian principles.

And the realities can be tough. Kristen Petillon recalls a mission in Walikale, three days after the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) had set up a new base there. Minutes after they arrived, they discovered a nearby village was under imminent threat of being caught in the crossfire between two factions. Before an attack on one side's positions within the village began, the JPT had to step in.

"Our team and the 'Blue Helmets' negotiated a ceasefire and asked for a temporary zone of separation and a retreat of the armed units from their positions in the village," he says. "Moreover, the JPT - thanks to some delicate negotiations - extracted two child soldiers from one of the groups."

When security conditions and the day-to-day work can be "very intense on occasions", Mr. Petillon says it's important to maintain the spirit and the objectives of the mission and stay on top of one's emotions. But there can be rewards.

He relates another experience that had an impact on him, this time in Lubero. There had been an incident where some houses had been burned down and some civilians killed. Villagers approached the UN compound looking for safety.

"Despite the distressing situation," he remembers, "some of them began to play music and dance. That night, while the 'Blue Helmets' patrolled the village to maintain security, the JPT team interacted with the people until the small hours of the morning. That night, I understood how just our presence could have a positive impact on the people."

And he is inspired too by the people he meets. "The Congolese have an incredible fortitude and courage," he says. "Despite their experience, their spirit and enthusiasm is an example to us all, particularly us volunteers!"

Kristen Petillon sees his volunteer role with MONUC as "a precise mandate in line with the principles that inspire the UN Charter". He adds that being a UNV volunteer in a professional role indistinguishable from that of many full-time UN staff is "an enriching professional - and life - experience" for him.

"We volunteers illustrate a pure engagement in community service," he concludes, "and it's important to encourage that spirit."