WN 10-0258-003.jpg - LT CDR Brendon Oakley with his twin girls, Brooklyn and Ruby (aged 3)
17 December 2010
As the New Zealand Defence Force’s Senior Officer at the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), this time last year Lieutenant Commander Brendon Oakley spent Christmas working on the Golan Heights; this year he’s looking forward to a Kiwi Christmas at home with his family.
Although he was lucky to have his wife Lisa and their three children living in nearby Tiberias, Christmas 2009 was business-as-usual for LT CDR Oakley, while his family attended a nativity play in Nazareth. He returned to New Zealand just a few weeks ago after spending a year as the New Zealand Defence Force’s Senior Officer with UNTSO.
As a UN officer in the Middle East LT CDR Oakley’s brief was to observe and report on any violations of the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Syria and Israel. The150-strong UNTSO observers in the region gain situational awareness with an aim of preventing isolated incidents from escalating into conflict. LT CDR Oakley says unarmed UNTSO officers are well received in the area because they are perceived as impartial: “Our job is purely to observe, patrol, inspect and report,” he says.
For the first five months he worked from an Observation Post (seven nights at a stretch) before moving to a staff position at Headquarters for the remaining seven months of his tour. “I’d been out in the field long enough to see how things could be improved, so it was great to get the opportunity to instigate some change,” he says.
Bringing his family to live in Tiberias might sound like a big deal, but LT CDR Oakley said his wife had been to Israel before and was prepared for all eventualities: “Lisa knew what to expect - though I still don’t know how she made that forty-hour journey with three kids under five! She had a rental car and $2,000 US dollars on her at all times, and agreed that if I recommended for her and the children to leave then they would. In the end, following a skirmish on the border between Lebanon and Israel in early August, my family decided to return home to New Zealand.”
Nelson-born LT CDR Oakley said while his deployment to the Middle East was fascinating, it also taught him some things about our country: “New Zealanders are known for their can-do attitude and for their impartiality in hot spots. The best thing you can have over there is a kiwi patch on your shoulder. Contributing to UNTSO is great for raising the profile of New Zealand. Considering we’ve only seven or eight people across five countries (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt) working alongside 24 other nations, the visibility these few personnel give New Zealand is significant. Kiwis have long had a presence in the region – I was amazed to see so many well-looked after ANZAC war graves there were in Syria and Jerusalem.”
The Naval engineer says he’s also developed a new appreciation for the Kiwi culture, “I enjoy reading local media now as many of the articles are a far cry from what I’d got used to reading in the Middle East where the media focus is on conflict, peace talks, and threat levels. The local populace seem to live by reading the newspaper; they’re always monitoring the situation.”
Having taken up a job at Defence Headquarters in Wellington as Personal Staff Officer to the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Rear Admiral Jack Steer, LT CDR Oakley is looking forward to the new challenge, after a traditional Kiwi Christmas at home.
Established in May 1948, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) is the United Nations’ oldest peacekeeping operation. Since then, UNTSO’s 150 unarmed observers have remained in the Middle East to monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent incidents from escalating, and assist other UN missions in the region to fulfil their mandates. New Zealand contributes around eight personnel to UNTSO, on a rotational basis. Because UNTSO is a relatively small mission the observers are under the operational control of two larger UN Forces (UNDOF) and (UNIFIL). UNTSO reaches across Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. UNTSO’s headquarters are in Jerusalem.