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Soldiers of peace: building bridges in divided communitie

As we mark sixty years of United Nations peacekeeping in Cyprus, we look at how young women soldiers like Lance Corporal Jemma Dickinson from the United Kingdom contribute to peace everyday, helping divided communities build a foundation for reconciliation and a common future.

Over the decades, young people have contributed to peace in many meaningful ways - from leading peace movements, marching the streets for human rights and equality, and playing an active role in peace processes. They are students, concerned citizens and even soldiers, like Lance Corporal Jemma Dickinson who serves as a military peacekeeper in the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFYCIP).

Dickinson is one of the nearly 300 soldiers from the United Kingdom serving in seven peacekeeping missions around the world. The majority of them work for UNFICYP, an operation that was established by the UN Security Council in 1964 to prevent further fighting between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and promote reconciliation between communities in the island. 

For 60 years, the mission has worked with the local authorities and communities to protect the people, culture, integrity and heritage of Cyprus. It was established amidst ongoing inter-communal violence in the 1960s that killed hundreds of Cypriots and displaced many more in what became a divided island in 1974. 

The mission, which consists of almost 1,100 military, police and civilian peacekeepers, continues to be critical for promoting security along the 180-kilometre buffer zone that divides the island, preventing tensions and creating a foundation for reunification.

Much has been done in the last six decades. Since 2003, UNFICYP has facilitated the opening of nine crossing points across Cyprus, allowing residents to visit people and places on either side of the divide. Working with the UN Secretary-General’s good offices mission led by the Personal Envoy in Cyprus, María Angela Holguín Cuéllar, UNFICYP promotes intra-island cooperation and trust-building, helping to find common ground among the communities.

The mission also works closely with local civil society groups as well as women and youth organizations to make sure all aspects of Cypriot society are engaged in the decisions that concern the future of the island. In recent years, it has served as a positive role model demonstrating a commitment to gender equality within its own ranks - as the first mission to have women leading its military, police and civilian components. Today, more than 35 per cent of UN field operations are led by women.

“Diversity amongst peacekeepers provides the United Nations with an increased capability to carry out the task set at hand. Do not think that your presence will not have a positive impact purely because what society, in the past, deemed to be a role unsuitable for women,” says Dickinson, who is one of the more than 6,200 uniformed women peacekeepers - military and police personnel - serving in a total of 11 peacekeeping missions around the world.

Peacekeepers like Dickinson patrol the buffer zone daily, sometimes along difficult terrain. Approximately 1,000 incidents occur within the zone each year, ranging from name-calling to unauthorized use of firearms. For the thousands of people who live and work in the zone, the peacekeepers, sometimes referred to as its custodians, are there to look out for their safety.

“Being able to have the empathy to understand things from others' perspective is incredibly important. Especially when we go into different countries, we need to learn to understand cultural differences and adjust ourselves accordingly,” says Dickinson whose current deployment marks the beginning of her journey as a peacekeeper.

“Our peacekeepers are doing a laudable job, patrolling the buffer zone and engaging on a daily basis with the civilian population and the opposing forces on both sides,” adds Colonel Benedict Ramsay, another British soldier who is the UNFICYP Force’s Chief of Staff. His father served as a peacekeeper in Cyprus in 1964.

“We are here in the service of peace. Every single one of us can and does make a tangible impact on creating a better life for others or those in need. Whether that is education, human rights, or equality. There is no better service that you can do as a soldier than to serve in the benefit of those in need.”

Since 1964, an estimated 150,000 people have served in UNFICYP, including more than 180 of them who have lost their lives in the service of peace.

Learn more about UNFICYP’s work since 1964.