Maj. David Smith, 35 (tan uniform), is among a group of Canadian peacekeepers stationed in South Sudan this Thanksgiving who have been overcoming muddy roads to bring food and aid to locals. (supplied photo)
After years of violence, South Sudan officially moves toward peace with the planned formation of a unity government in November.
About a dozen Canadians — working 11,000 kilometres from home — have played a crucial role in all this as part of the UN peacekeeping forces there.
“It’s not an enormous number of people,” says Rita Smith, whose son is serving in South Sudan, “but they’re in there 100,000%.
“Canadians should be so proud!”
Smith’s son, Maj. David Smith, 35, is stationed with UN forces not far from the city of Juba.
We confess to not knowing much about what’s happening in South Sudan …
“You and 33 million other Canadians,” jokes Smith.
She knows the situation in the tiny African nation isn’t well known in North America — all the more reason to make sure the Canadian achievement there is noted.
South Sudan only became a country in 2011. The government is recognized by the UN, but opposition forces (IO) have been present in the country since then — with guns and in uniform — and the UN role was to calm that situation. The peacekeepers have been working hard to get the formerly warring parties to create that unity government next month.
The risk of South Sudan descending into chaos was ever-present. Over fifteen years of infighting, hundreds of thousands have died and just as many have fled; comparative peace can’t dispel poverty overnight, either.
“The fear was that this would be yet another failed nation, but that hasn’t happened,” says Smith, who is obviously proud of what her son and his UN colleagues have achieved.
And now the opposition fighters have decided to lay down their arms.
“And this is so great!” says Smith. “This is exactly why Canadian peacekeepers do their work.”
Food delivery to starving families all over the country helped smooth the way to crucial meetings and conversations about unity. People who previously fled across the border into Uganda are returning home to South Sudan in droves — a good sign that order is being restored.
Smith says her son is very happy to be doing this work in South Sudan. “He trained his entire adult life for this.”
David Smith was in the Canadian Forces for 10 years before being deployed.
“He stayed in peak physical condition for a decade,” says his mother, illustrating the soldier’s resolve with a story about a Thanksgiving of a few years ago.
As Smith was putting the turkey in the oven that morning, her son decided to go out and do a 40 kilometre ruck march with a heavily weighted pack.
He got home in time for dinner.
“He said, ‘Mom, it was such a beautiful day, I did 50 K.’”
In South Sudan, Major Smith and his UN colleagues hold conversation circles with the elders of every village they pass through, bringing a message of cooperation and peace as the unity agreement draws near.
But they also do backbreaking grunt work.
“The physical labour they’re doing, just to get a truck full of food to the people who need it! It was the rainy season when David first arrived there, and the work was accompanying trucks as far as 160 km into the bush to drop off food to mothers and babies who would starve otherwise. The trucks were up to their axles in mud. That’s what these soldiers are doing — it’s probably not what most Canadians imagine them doing.”
Most Canadians may likewise be unaware that in addition to the dedicated officers who serve from many nations, UN troops are keen to work with officers from Canada, Scotland and Australia — countries respected for training professionals who work without a political agenda.
Does Smith have an opinion as to why Canadian officers are so in demand?
“People trust us,” she says.
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