x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Jordan mourns its fallen peacekeepers

The nation prepares to bury five soldiers killed in Haiti, one of the highest death tolls Jordan has seen since joining UN peacekeeping missions.

AMMAN // The bodies of five Jordanian soldiers killed in a plane crash in Haiti are expected to arrive today, their relatives said. The five UN "blue berets", or peacekeepers, who were part of operations on the Caribbean island nation, were killed on Friday along with six Uruguayan military personnel when their plane crashed into a mountain during a weekly surveillance flight near the border with the Dominican Republic.

Col Obeidallah Mawajdeh, Lt Col Jihad Mheirat, First Lt Bilal Abu Hjeileh, First Warrant Officer Amer Rawashdeh and Major Mohammad Shorman are expected to be buried today or tomorrow in a memorial ceremony. The accident came as a shock to Jordan because it is one of the highest death tolls of Jordanian troops since the country began participating in UN peacekeeping missions in 1989. "We are saddened by their death," Fakhri Iskandar, a member of parliament, said. "Jordanian troops serving in volatile hotbeds reflect the country's keenness to maintain international peace and its rejection of terrorism."

Mawajdeh, a 47-year-old father of five, had left for Haiti in June as part of the six-month mission, his cousin and brother-in-law, Mohammad Mawajdeh, said. It was not the first time Mawajdeh, who served in the Jordanian armed forces for 30 years, had gone to Haiti. He had been building a new house for his family before he left. "He called me last Tuesday to congratulate me for my graduation from a military course," Mr Mawajdeh said. "We are proud of him, he was fulfilling his national duty."

Mheirat, 41, another victim, had left for Haiti a few months ago. His family set up a tent near their house on the outskirts of Amman. His wife, mother and children were all in a state of shock when they learnt of his death. "It was disastrous news and I was about to collapse and then I started to think how to inform my elderly parents," Jamal Mheirat, his brother, told the Jordan Times. Newspapers were filled with obituaries, lamenting the loss of what they called "the martyrs of duty".

"They deserve to be honoured as martyrs who died while serving peace," wrote Taher Edwan, the editor in chief of Arab al Yawm, an independent daily newspaper in Amman. "Their bodies deserve a welcome that measures up with their role and the greatness of their mission. This is not only a national occasion marked with sadness for their lost souls, but it is also a chance to shower them with honours and to console their families and children."

Amman said it would honour the soldiers by naming streets after them. Their bodies were repatriated to Amman from Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, where the UN mission is stationed. Before they were flown home, the UN held a memorial ceremony yesterday to honour them and the six Uruguayan officers who also died in the crash. A UN investigation showed that turbulence probably caused the Spanish-made plane to crash, news reports said.

The five victims were serving as part of a UN peacekeeping mission that comprised 9,123 uniformed personnel. The current Haiti mission was established five years ago in June after the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president and was due to expire tomorrow. The mission is expected to be extended for one year, a military source said last night. Jamal Mheirat told the Jordan Times on Saturday that his brother, who was married with five children between five and 16, was supposed to return in less than three months after completing his six-month mission. Jordanian peacekeepers were involved in restoring calm following the coup and providing humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters, including a devastating flood last year.

The Jordanian contingent, with 2,064 army personnel, is the seventh-largest force in the UN peacekeeping forces worldwide. Jordanians are deployed in Ivory Coast, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo and operate a military hospital in Liberia. "We choose the most elite to serve in the UN peacekeeping forces," Imad Maayeh, a retired senior military official, said. The first peacekeeping mission Jordanians participated in was 20 years ago in Angola. In the early 1990s, they also served in Bosnia.

Besides fulfilling a noble and essential service, the handsome salaries - which can reach up to three times the average monthly military income of US$450 (Dh1,650) depending on the risk of the area they are assigned to - provide an incentive for many Jordanians to join peacekeeping missions. High-ranking officers can receive as much as $4,500. "I remember how many of my colleagues used to fight to get chosen because of the salaries," said Mamoun Halasa, a retired engineer from the public security department who served for one year in Bosnia, training the local police on traffic investigation and how to prevent human trafficking.

Abu Mahmoud, 30, who served in the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year and in Ivory Coast before that, said the experiences were enriching. "We learnt about the UN system and at the same time were exposed to the culture in mid- and West Africa," he said. "Part of our work was humanitarian. We used to help poor families by providing employment opportunities such as hiring guards and paying them salaries."

In its editorial yesterday, the daily Addustur commended the role of Jordanian forces, whether in UN peacekeeping missions or providing healthcare services by setting up makeshift military hospitals in disaster areas around the world. "In some instances, the price is too much to pay, [but] they reiterate our need to document their heroic acts and their noble roles, their contributions in building and maintaining peace."

smaayeh@thenational.ae