When Col. Almuchalif Suryo, joined the UN Mission in Sierra Leone as a military observer, he was ready to face anything, including dealing with child soldiers.
However, he was still surprised when he came face to face with children wandering around with AK-47 rifles around the base camp of a rebel leader, with whom Suryo had to discuss disarmament plans.
The children aimed their rifles at the UN team including Col. Suryo, who, as a military observer, carried no weapon — but, coincidentally, a pocket of candy, which he shared with the youngsters, he said.
“When they were given the candy, these aggressive children suddenly transformed into normal kids. They started to smile and were friendly from then on,” said Suryo, who holds a master’s in Diplomacy and Military Science from the University of Norwich in Vermont, the United States.
One might recall the biography of Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone — a boy first recruited by Sierra Leone’s military when he was 12.
One of at least 10,000 child soldiers plunged into the heat of the civil war in the 1990s, he cites one part of the training where children stab a banana tree with bayonets, while envisioning enemy rebels who killed their parents and other family members.
In Sierra Leone, Suryo worked as a military observer for one year, starting in 2001, one of 10 military observers deployed from Indonesia.
The UN Sierra Leone mission (UNAMSIL) aimed to help the country’s government implement disarmament, demobilization and reintegration after the civil war started in 1991.
Suryo said his experience in the Indonesian Military (TNI) helped him contribute to problem solving in disputes. He cited one protest among the rebels who accused their leaders of replacing their names with the names of the leaders’ own family members on the list of gun ownership, in order to gain compensation from the disarmament program.
“Just like in the TNI, we have to know our guns well. So, I asked the rebels to take apart their rifles and put them back together again,” Suryo said, adding that this strategy identified the real gun owners from those who were confused.
Suryo, 42, said his main attraction to UN missions first came with the opportunity to join the controversial mission in Timor Leste (earlier East Timor) — to oversee the 1999 referendum, which finally led to the separation of Indonesia’s former 27th province. The colonel was a liaison officer to both the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) and the International Force for East Timor (Interfet).
On one occasion, Suryo said, his vehicle was assaulted by a group of Timorese who yelled their resentment about the Indonesian government, just as he was without an escort.
Suryo said he panicked, fully aware of the Timorese people’s general loathing of Indonesian soldiers. But when he distributed water, instant noodles and other foodstuffs to the attackers, he said they surprisingly stopped and said, “Indonesia is good.”
“From this experience, I understood that we shouldn’t panic in facing critical situations,” he said.
Currently, the father of two is operational planning director at the Indonesian Peacekeeping Center (IPC), widely known with its Indonesian acronym PMPP. He often visits army platoons to recruit new peacekeeping candidates.
After Sierra Leone, in 2009, the TNI deployed Suryo to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. The challenge there, he said, was mostly being involved in operational planning and offering suggestions to the Italian operation commander.