Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Five

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is an Army medic currently serving with the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.

Christmas is fast approaching here at the United Nations Protected Area in Cyprus. Spontaneous outbreaks of Christmas sing-a-longs and jingles that beckon you to join in as you walk or drive along, or to buy something pretty, expensive and completely outrageous, but that is Christmas these days isn’t it?

At work, the endless resourcefulness of the British Army soldier is pushed to its limits with decorating our work and living spaces with trees, tinsel, lights and angels. Santa could never miss us even if he tried and thanks to the good work of the Royal Air Force and the military logistics personnel that move so many parcels at this time of year, on Santa’s behalf, we are filling the empty spaces under the Christmas tree and in our rooms amazingly fast. With the sun still shining brightly outside but with a little frost, my body tells me it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas.

Whilst chatting here one day, we noticed that everyone’s prayers and seasonal greetings at this time of year tend to reflect or follow the lyrics of many of the songs that we hear on the radio or watch on YouTube, hoping for world peace and an end to war, famine and disease. Many of my own echo these sentiments and I long to be back with family in Blackpool. What is it about Christmas that makes us want to be closer to family and friends than probably any other day of the year? I would give up all offers of gifts to sit around the dinner table with those I love and cherish, if only for that one day.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Cyprus!

The reality here in Cyprus is different. Even on Christmas Day we still do the duties of guarding gates and patrolling the buffer zone but we have a very filling Christmas dinner planned with turkey and even the dreaded or beloved sprouts, depending on how you view them. There will be Christmas hats, crackers, pudding, chocolate, fizzy drinks and maybe even a responsible alcoholic beverage for those lucky enough to be on a rest day. There will be sports to work up an appetite in the morning and then in the evening there will be board games and the like to allow a quiet digestion of all that we’ve eaten. The Wi-Fi will be tested to destruction as everyone uses Skype and FaceTime to talk with loved ones at home, so overall it will be good fun and we are all looking forward to it.

Working Christmas and New Year at home is something I am quite used to, because there are always patients that need looking after, regardless of what time of year it is. As a student nurse in the National Health Service (NHS) you see so many families affected by Christmas, whether it be a poorly cooked turkey that causes upset stomachs or the results of a road traffic collision that wrecks the holiday for some unsuspecting family. And just like in the Army, we always do our best in the NHS to keep people upbeat, focused on what’s important and to remember to enjoy and celebrate the occasion as best you can.

So, this year I will be lucky enough to celebrate Christmas with the many other nationalities that are here as part of the United Nations and hopefully partake in some of their Christmas traditions. The Slovakian contingent believe it is Jesus that gives you the presents at Christmas and not Santa, so we have been learning so much about how everyone else celebrates and how we can bring all of this together to make it a great day for all.

But before Christmas actually arrives and those New Year resolutions are made and broken, I must mention the military skills competition that we had earlier this month and how all the extra physical and military training thankfully paid off. The day of the military skills competition started nice and early at 4:30am, but luckily we didn’t have to travel far (unlike some in the other sectors) as it was held in Nicosia.

We got off to a flying start in the first event which was the 2.5 mile loaded march carrying a 25kg log between the team, which we won by a rather large margin, but that did not stop the aches in my legs throughout, but they disappeared like a Christmas miracle once I realised we had done so well. Later on in the day we also won the shooting competition and I’d like to think my one shot on target made all the difference. The rest of the day wasn’t as successful but everybody put 100% effort in. Our team which was made up from four different nations did well – we came fifth. The winning team were from the international military police. The opportunities of being here and serving in Cyprus is one of the best Christmas presents I could ever have wished for. I will never forget any of it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Four

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is an Army medic currently serving with the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.

Oh my goodness, time has really flown by. It is hard to believe that I have been here almost two months already and that is almost a third of the tour over. I feel like I haven’t even seen or done anything yet and soon I will be deciding about where to go on holiday when I get back home next year.

The last few weeks have been really busy with patrolling and preparation for our military skills competition. I am the only girl on the team of eight Infantrymen but I surprise them and myself at times with my ability to just get stuck in to it all.

Balancing my daily work routine of guarding and patrolling whilst managing to get time to fit more military and physical training in is exhausting, but in a fun and motivating way. I found that although there are real physical elements to everything we do here, the more I do the more I want to do.

I love that my job allows me to get out most days into the sprawling open countryside around the United Nations Protected Area (UNPA), where I am based in the West of Nicosia. The area surrounds the old Nicosia Airport and has largely open fields now used by authorized farmers to graze their animals. One of my many responsibilities is to ensure that no unauthorized civilians are entering these areas without permission, as the lands are either contested or administered by the United Nations and therefore out of bounds.

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Illegal hunters, unauthorized farmers and even opportunistic quad bikers will sometimes deliberately stray into them as they are fertile grounds for prey, soil and off road tracks. As for the authorized farmers, I actually have to count the number of sheep in their fields to ensure that there are only the correct number herded there. The jokes about counting sheep in your sleep are endless, as you can imagine. Quad bikers, taking full advantage of the very inviting and almost bespoke ‘all terrain’ nature of these areas, can often be seen blazing a trail at breakneck speeds.

When we catch them, we ask them to leave. Most understand that they need special permission to be there, but occasionally illegal farmers or hunters will protest that they do not need permission and refuse to move. Illegal hunters especially are stubborn because they are armed and we are not. The anxiety and tension in the air can at times be cut with a knife. Not that they would use their weapons against us but trying to get an armed person to do something they do not want to do, when you are unarmed, can be really tricky.

But we are trained for exactly this type of ‘person to person’ engagement, and so we negotiate with them professionally and courteously. This will generally elicit the same response, and so we can talk effectively to them about the constraints on the movement of non-authorized individuals, in a grown up discussion, which they almost always react positively to.

Funnily I have many of the same types of conversation with patients that I see as a student nurse back in Lancaster. I love the human interaction that both jobs provide. People are just so diverse and interesting but essentially human. Just like our famers and hunters here in Cyprus, patients at home often have to be negotiated with in order to get the best results for them in their recovery. I think many people could see this as stressful and tiring but it is a genuine pleasure to help if it pays off for them in the end. You just have to believe that they really do appreciate your help even if they do not show it immediately.

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There are a number of abandoned buildings and houses in my patrolling area so we will routinely get out of our vehicles and have a look around to ensure the properties are empty, and that wild dogs are not using them. Would you believe I am at far more danger from a dog with rabies than I ever am from anything else? I have Armies north and south of me and the real danger is a mad dog!

As the military skills competition approaches I find myself training harder and harder. I must at least be as capable as the men in the team, although we all have different roles and strengths. I am the team’s combat medical technician which is a grand term for a battlefield paramedic, of sorts. In the simulated helicopter crash that will be one of the testing events in the competition I will be the subject matter expert when dealing with casualties, triaging them into the correct medical category based on their injuries and then ensuring that this information is relayed as effectively and efficiently as possible to the team commander.

We actually use a system that is not too dissimilar to the one I use as a student nurse. It allows me to quickly assess and categorize each casualty in order to ensure that the individual requiring life-saving treatment gets it according to their need and in relation to the needs of the other casualties. The parallels with my civilian work really allow me to play to my strengths.

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The other events in the competition include cross country driving, command tasks, which are effectively practical puzzles that we attempt to solve as a team (think ‘of 90s quiz show The Crystal Maze) and shooting. It is all good fun but also intensely competitive. We compete against the other United Nations contributing forces from Argentina, Hungary and Slovakia.

To give you an idea of how competitive it is, we had a football tournament a few days ago with the same nations and you would have thought the World Cup had come to Cyprus. It all makes for really great banter and allows us to cooperate and communicate on a level that we all understand. Not everyone here speaks fluent English and the British personnel do not necessarily speak fluent Spanish, Hungarian or Slovakian but we do all understand ethos, team spirit and performance. Maybe I could get the nurses at home to get stuck into these types of events when I get back. Anyway, the football ended as it always does with Argentina knocking both our teams out. No ‘Hand of God’ this time, more like feet of Messi!

I will let you know how the military skills competition goes.

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Three

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is an Army medic currently serving with the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.

The dark nights are drawing in even here in Cyprus which means the summer is truly over and Christmas is looming. The Christmas songs play in the shops, Santa hats are appearing at our frequent BBQs and in truth I have started to buy my family’s presents already.

However, before all that merriment is Remembrance Sunday, a date seared into the British identity and one which allows us in the Army to remember all those who have died in wars and conflicts.

Luckily, I do not have any close friends that were killed or injured in Iraq or Afghanistan but many of my friends who I serve with here know someone they have lost.

My job in Cyprus gives us such a range of responsibilities and these are spread over an area of approximately 40km, so we also get a good opportunity to find out not just Cypriot history but also the British Army’s history on the island.

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Private Belinda Houghton pays her respects during Remembrance.

Each day I am out patrolling either on my United Nations mountain bike or in my Toyota Land Cruiser, monitoring the Buffer Zone between the North and South of Cyprus, passing a beautifully maintained British War Cemetery called Wayne’s Keep. It holds members from the three Services from World War II to more recent times and we always stop to have a look, read the headstones, wonder who they were as people and pay our respects. It seems hard to think that such a tranquil place as Cyprus could have experienced so much conflict from so many different places. It leads me to think of why I am here with the United Nations; in order to maintain a fragile peace. It makes me reflect about this thin strip of land we patrol with absolute authority, called the Buffer Zone or Green Line.

It is surely counter-intuitive to walk between heavily fortified, opposing military positions, neither of which belong to my own forces. I am sure that in every war movie I’ve ever seen or military history I’ve read, it never ends well for the person who places themselves in such a position! Well, not only do my colleagues and I do this, we do it more than five times every week.

The Green Line is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘dead’ place. Wild cats have made their home there and a few weeds grow and die in line with the seasons. There are no people, no children playing or cars passing. For a place in the middle of a modern European Capital it is as quiet as a remote mountain top. There are shops but they have long since been abandoned. In a typical 1960s building which reflects that generation’s architectural ideas of people living, working and existing in concrete layered blocks one above another, I see the signs of lives’ abandoned at a moment’s notice. Shops still have old television sets in them for sale. Car dealerships still have 1974 Toyota Corolla and Celica models on display, and overhead apartments still have cookers with pots and pans on them, having being rudely interrupted during dinner half a century ago. Almost all life is gone. Yet, only metres from most points along the Green Line you would be in either North or South Nicosia with all its shops and cafes.

The Buffer Zone or Green Line is a surreal place and it is our responsibility to keep it as it is, maintain the status quo. But how do you tell people at home about this place, the insanity of conflict and a long running distrust between two communities that ended in bloodshed? The answer is that you use the stories of people caught up in it all.

20161118-remembrance_blog_3_6In one instance I explain how a soldier of one of the armies crawled through an anti-personnel minefield to steal the flag of the enemy! Well, not to be outdone, the soldier who lost the flag from his position then shot the other dead and so the circle of violence continued and at times spiraled out of control. In another instance, an elderly lady found that after the conflict of 1974 ended in the ceasefire agreement, her front door and street were now in the Buffer Zone and could not be used. Having no rear entrance or exit she had to be ‘adopted’ by the United Nations and escorted in and out of her house every day just to pick up food from the local shops. This continued till the lady’s death in 1991.

Like most of the service personnel now laid down in Wayne’s Keep, we do not get to choose where we serve but every individual must use their own moral compass and understand that putting themselves in harm’s way to maintain the peace must be one of the most responsible acts a person can do for another. So many have done so before; in all, 183 United Nations Peacekeepers have been killed here. Now I do my own little part.

Op TOSCA, as the British role here is named, has revealed so many unexpected things for me. I never knew of the issues that Cyprus had before I came here but it will never be far from my thoughts in the future. A truly humbling and rewarding experience. Lest we forget.

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Two

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is an Army medic currently serving with the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.

A month into our operational tour of Cyprus and we are all settling in nicely here on Blue Beret Camp. Originally named after the famous light blue colour of the United Nations head-dress, we really couldn’t ask for a much better place to live. Perched on high ground in the vicinity of the old Nicosia International Airport, it towers above and dominates the surrounding countryside and west of Nicosia. Each morning when I get out of bed and head to either an early morning exercise session or to work, I can observe the beauty of the sun breaking through on the horizon. Cyprus is a really rugged, dry and beautiful country and therefore the sunrise is a lot like those you might see in the desert.

Watching the BBC News here most days and I see that the United Kingdom is becoming cooler and wetter as they move into winter from autumn. I can imagine the dark and cold setting in and that extra effort needed to get out of bed each morning. In contrast Cyprus has light and warmth in abundance and it seems like a genuine waste not to get up and meet it. I am loving the Mediterranean winter sunshine!

Work means switching between sentry and life-guarding duties most days but I am getting a good amount of ‘down time’. This has allowed me to do a bit of exploring into the centre and specifically shopping areas of Nicosia.

Shopping opportunities are plentiful here and there’s the usual Debenhams, Top Shop, Zara etc. But the real bargains are to be had on the North side of Nicosia. There are so many little boutiques with hand-made tailored outfits and so inexpensive.

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A shopping day in Nicosia.

The north side is also home of the world famous Umbrella café with its great atmosphere, food and opportunity to get a great selfie. In Cyprus, coffee shops are the place to be in on an evening. They look very much like bars do in the UK, are full of the same hustle and bustle, but surprisingly sell cappuccinos or expresso instead of Sambuca shots. It seems to be the way of the Cypriots and you know what they say, “when in Rome”.

In day-to-day life the Cypriot people seem to be more laid back. Shops don’t open till late morning, the streets don’t get busy until the afternoon or evening and they aren’t rushing about as much.

I have a feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is just so much to do in Nicosia that I would not be surprised if I didn’t get to see the rest of the island by the time we return home in a few months. I suspect I will see it all though. I have the energy and time to do it so it would be rude not to.

Back on camp our social calendar is quite full as well. There is a real ethos of work hard, play hard. The Officers and Sergeants are great at getting things organised and getting us all involved. I suspect they might be trying to mould us as a team but it is great fun so I really do not mind. We have regular BBQs with the Argentinians, Hungarians and Slovakians. Unfortunately, I’m a vegetarian and although meat does smell fantastic I’m happy with the meat free options and extra dessert.

Getting ready for the Halloween party, where I intend to dress up as a Zombie nurse, which I thought was very fitting due to my student nursing background, is another opportunity to have a laugh with my friends here. My platoon also has trips planned to Kyrenia, Ayia Napa and Farmagusta, so I will have the opportunity to explore a bit more of the Island in the run up to Christmas.

We have Remembrance Sunday approaching so I better get working on my uniform so that it looks good for the commemoration.

 

 

 

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is currently serving with 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.

Leaving my family in Blackpool and my nurse training in Lancaster behind as I started my journey to Cyprus was difficult, but I was also filled with a lot of excitement. This is my first operational tour with the Army Reserve but it is exactly the type of stuff I joined to do. I only joined 18 months ago and can’t believe this opportunity was open to me so early in my career.

When I stepped off the plane at Akrotiri airport in Cyprus, the heat that greeted me was pretty impressive. In excess of thirty degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around fifty percent. It didn’t take long for me to start sweating, but I was used to it.

Over the last seven weeks I have been training across the United Kingdom in a record breaking summer heat, so I know how to deal with the sun. In the Army this deployment to Cyprus is known as a ‘sunshine’ tour and I can see why.

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