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Interview with Former UNDOF Force Commander Bala Nanda Sharma

Bala Nanda Sharma is a Nepalese lieutenant general who served as the force commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) from January 2004 to January 2007. As part of U.N. peacekeeping operations, UNDOF's primary mission is to maintain the cease-fire between Israel and Syria by supervising the disengagement of the two countries' forces in the Golan Heights, southwestern Syria. UNDOF currently consists of troops from Austria, Canada, India, Japan, Nepal, Poland, and Slovakia. The following interview took place at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo.

Bala Nanda Sharma
Bala Nanda Sharma

How do you look back on your three years in the Golan Heights?
I think the situation in the Golan Heights has been calm and stable. Both Israel and Syria understand the importance of the disengagement and have been cooperative with us. Therefore, there were no major conflicts in the Golan Heights and no UNDOF casualties during my time there. When fighting broke out in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, however, tension between Israel and Syria heightened as well. To prevent fighting, we frequently talked with both countries' officials and asked them to exercise self-restraint. As a result the disengagement was maintained.

What did you think of the Japanese troops in UNDOF?
We had 45 Japanese personnel altogether. Two engaged in public relations and the planning and coordination of logistic operations as staff officers to UNDOF headquarters. The other 43 provided logistic support for UNDOF activities, including transport of food, storage of supplies, and road repair, using trucks, snowmobiles, and armored personnel carriers. In my opinion, the Japanese troops were very polite and well disciplined. They caused no disciplinary problems during my tenure. They also showed great loyalty to me. All troops from the participating countries are replaced every six months, and one of the Japanese commanders said to me that they would go anywhere, anytime, if I ordered them. I was greatly impressed by his words.
    Moreover, the Japanese troops were highly committed to work. One example has to do with road repair. One of the major roads in the region was blocked by a landslide. So I asked the Syrian government to repair the road, but there was no substantial progress for six months due to red tape. My request was transferred from office to office. Then I turned to the Japanese troops, and they repaired the road in only three days.

Are there any changes in U.N. peacekeeping operations?
Actually, I stopped by in Japan after submitting my final report on UNDOF to the U.N. Looking back on recent developments, I think the nature of peacekeeping has changed considerably. The original concept of peacekeeping was to maintain peace between conflicting parties. As you can see in East Timor and African nations, however, the role of peacekeeping has expanded to nation building that aims to create a new social system or infrastructure. Therefore, peacekeeping forces are working with other U.N. organizations, including UNDP [the United Nations Development Programme] and UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees].

In what way should Japan contribute to U.N. peacekeeping operations?
Japan’s contribution to peacekeeping has centered on financial assistance, but it’s not very visible. If Japan sends more troops to peacekeeping operations, its contribution will become more visible to the local people involved as well as to the international community. Therefore, I think Japan should take part in peacekeeping operations more actively. In this respect, UNDOF is a good example because it has been successful. UNDOF will also be able to provide young Japanese officers with good opportunities to learn peacekeeping. Finally, I’d like to thank the Japanese government for sending troops to UNDOF and ask the Japanese people to continue to support them.