25 September, 2023
The United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) is now in its 75th year. It operates in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Israel to help preserve peace between the Middle Eastern neighbours.
Palmerston North local Captain Zarra Houpapa, and Dunedin-born Major Catherine Dymock, are among the latest in a long line of Military Observers sent to UNTSO by New Zealand since the early 1950s. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) deploys personnel to patrol and monitor ceasefires and military activity in Israel’s Golan Heights, Lebanon and Syria.
Born in Wellington, 28-year-old Captain Houpapa joined the New Zealand Army aged 19.
“I wanted to travel. Travelling was a big thing for me, to get out and see the world, and meet new people,” she said.
Life in the Army has taken her as far afield as Iraq and now the Israeli city of Tiberias, where she leads a team of UN Military Observers from the likes of Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and India.
Alongside two Australian Defence Force personnel, Captain Houpapa is part of the first all-female UNTSO leadership team in the Tiberias outstation.
She said having females in charge had been a change for some observers from different cultural backgrounds, but it had been a great experience.
“And because the three of us happen to be from Australia and New Zealand, we’ve had that Anzac camaraderie as well.”
Summer temperatures have made for sweltering conditions as observers carry out patrols, or monitor activity from posts along the Area of Separation between Israel and Syria.
Their job is to ensure limitations on equipment and military personnel are adhered to, and report on any violations of the 1974 Disengagement Agreement.
The blend of nations in Captain Houpapa’s team helped maintain neutrality and eliminate bias; in order to report on a violation, it must be seen by two UN Military Observers from different nations.
Working with people from other countries brought some difficulties, but also meant Captain Houpapa now had friends from all over the world.
The challenges and rewards of a multinational environment is a sentiment echoed by Major Dymock, who recently completed her deployment as Senior National Officer leading the NZDF contingent.
The former Dunstan High School student said she found immense enjoyment working with people from other backgrounds, while based in Lebanon.
“Everyone has their own culture, language, history and work ethic and it was wonderfully challenging balancing all those aspects.
“This was also the most rewarding as well, as we came together for the good of the mission and the mandate, and the diversity of our team was also its strength.”
For Major Dymock, it was an honour to represent New Zealand at 75th anniversary ceremonies held at UNTSO headquarters in Jerusalem and in Beirut, acknowledging the service of previous military observers and commemorating fallen peacekeepers.
She said while the NZDF only deployed up to eight personnel at a time, their robust training, skills and experiences saw them add a lot of value to the peacekeeping efforts.
“The friendly nature of the Kiwis, and our flexibility and strong work ethic means that we can have a positive impact on the mission and the people in the region.
“Being able to live in the community, go out on patrol and talk to locals, either unofficially in coffee shops or formally during Key Leader Engagements, was very rewarding.”
As unarmed observers they’re not encumbered by weapons, but Captain Houpapa said it’s still been “stinking hot” with their uniforms and body armour on. Then come winter, the mountainous Golan Heights will be blanketed in snow.
“You get both extremes in the whole year, but it’s interesting. You get to see a lot of the country; Israel, the Golan and looking across to Syria.”
Captain Houpapa had learnt a lot about the history of the area, and was aware of not saying anything that might offend someone or cause tensions.
“Generally people are pretty receptive towards the UN, so personally I haven’t felt any kind of danger or anything like that. But I’m also not naïve to the fact it could change.”
She had found her time with UNTSO an eye-opening experience.
“It’s experiences like this where you realise how lucky we are to be Kiwis,” she said.
An unexpected delight was the cats which made themselves at home amongst the observers.
“There are cats everywhere in the country but we have outpost cats, which is great because they hunt down all the creepy crawlies that we don’t like. We get snakes and spiders and things up in the Golan,” said Captain Houpapa.
She said they receive tick treatments and are spoilt by the observers, who buy cat food in case the day’s catch doesn’t sate their appetites.
Her outpost is currently home to two felines, Snowy and 15-year-old Junior.
“It’s a running joke that Junior’s the longest-serving UN Military Observer in the mission.”