Book Review: The Peacekeeper Shabbir Ahsan
I'm sure for most people in the West Bangladesh is only known as the country the late George Harrison once did a benefit concert for. The reality is it once was part of the Indian province Bengal. When the region gained it's independence from Britain in 1947, and the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the province of Bengal was divided between the two new countries. West, Hindu Bengal became part of India and east, Muslim Bengal became East Pakistan.
In spite of the fact that the former Bengal province was the more densely populated half of the country, they were continually ignored by the central government in the west and independence movements were formed as early as the 1950's. In 1971, with the support of the Indian army, Bangladesh fought a successful war of independence. Just as the country was finding its feet, the famine of 1973-74 almost destroyed them. It says amazing things about the resilience of its people that the country of Bangladesh was able to recover from both the war of liberation and the famine and in the ensuing years become one of the biggest suppliers of personnel to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping missions. One of the permanent mission destinations for Bangladeshi troop since the mid 1990's has been the Democratic Republic Of Congo.
While there are many countries in Africa that still bear the scars of colonial times, the area that was formally the Belgian Congo is not only scarred but still bleeding heavily. The Democratic Republic Of Congo (formerly Zaire) is one of the largest countries in Africa and one of it's poorest. In 1965 - four years after independence - an American supported coup led to the installation of a military dictatorship under the rule of Joseph-Desire Mobutu. For the next thirty years or so Mobutu proceeding to drain the country dry, stealing what's thought to be close to four billion dollars from the national treasury (an amount close to the size of the country's national debt), so that when he finally left in 1997 he left behind one of the poorest countries in Africa, with the least amounts of infrastructure, and the violence that always seems to accompany desperation.
As a major in the Bangladeshi army who has served a rotation in the Democratic Republic with the UN forces, author Shabbir Ahsan is uniquely positioned to write about the experience of being a peacekeeper in that country, and in his first novel, The Peace Keeper, he presents a fact-based, fictionalized account, of a Bangladeshi officer's year in the Democratic Republic Of Congo.
Major Samir Iqbal is a veteran of the Bangladeshi armed forces working in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Armed Forces responsible for the co-ordination of all overseas assignments. So he's the one who receives the fax reporting the deaths of fifteen Bangladeshi service men in a plane crash on take-off. In the tight-knit community of an army any death is devastating, and fifteen is horrific; never before has the army lost that many men at once since they began supplying peacekeepers. For Samir and his wife the news is particularly upsetting as one of the men was a close personal friend.
While Samir had been eagerly awaiting news of his own acceptance for overseas placement in Africa, receiving the notice that he has been assigned as a military observer in the Congo for a year on the same day as the plane crash isn't great timing when it comes to his wife's peace of mind. The fact that military observers are not allowed to even carry weapons and are placed in volatile situations like negotiating between warring factions or reporting on the status of a cease-fire, is not information that is bound to ease her fears.
We follow Samir from the day he first receives the notification of his new assignment through his year of living in the Congo to the day of his return home. As our narrator and guide he takes us on a journey that plumbs the depths of human depravity, reveals the strength of the human spirit, and celebrates the simple pleasure of friendship and humour. The fact that all of this takes place in what amounts to basically a war zone makes it all the more amazing. Ahsan's strength as a writer is such that even when he has Major Iqbal describing the most abhorrent of behaviours, it never feels like for any other purpose than to inform. Where some writers seem to delight in describing violence, in his case you can hear the regret he feels in having to tell us that this type of activity takes place anywhere upon earth.
The points in the book that are actually the hardest to read are the ones where the threat of violence is in the air. At one point our major is sent into a supposedly quiet area with three other officers to look for a site to set up a team headquarters. Upon their arrival they find that none of the local authorities supposed to assist and protect them are willing to do anything other than tell them to leave because they can't guarantee their safety. The team literally jumps on the helicopter sent to their rescue ten feet ahead of a mob screaming for their blood, watching and hearing rocks and bottles bounce off their ride as it lifts off with them safely on board.
Thankfully Ahsan balances the moments of terror with equal doses of humour, nearly all of it at the expense of our erstwhile Major Iqbal. Whether he's being duped by a camp servant into cooking and cleaning for him, or being swarmed by a women's soccer team for scoring the winning goal, he handles it all with equal good grace. He's a wonderfully human character who in spite of the horror and nerve wracking experiences, is still able to find positive things in the world around him. He's never unrealistic, he's heard eyewitness accounts of the horrible things people can do to each other after all, but he's also witnessed people with almost nothing extending hospitality to those with nothing as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, so he retains hope.
The Peacekeeper by Shabbir Ahsan uses actual incidents involving the Bangladeshi army in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo as members of the UN Peacekeeping force stationed there as the framework around which Major Samil Iqbal relates his year's experience as a peacekeeper. By turns heartrending and heart-warming it's probably the best book set in a war zone that you're liable to read in a long time. The irony that one of the poorest nations in the world also supplies one of the largest contingents of peacekeepers to the United Nations isn't something that should be lost on us either. It makes you wonder why if they can find a way to do that - why can't we?