17 December 2010
UN Peacekeeper Home for Kiwi Christmas
As the New Zealand Defence Force’s Senior Officer at the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), this
time last year Lieutenant Commander Brendon Oakley spent Christmas working on the Golan Heights; this year he’s looking
forward to a Kiwi Christmas at home with his family.
Although he was lucky to have his wife Lisa and their three children living in nearby Tiberias, Christmas 2009 was
business-as-usual for LT CDR Oakley, while his family attended a nativity play in Nazareth. He returned to New Zealand
just a few weeks ago after spending a year as the New Zealand Defence Force’s Senior Officer with UNTSO.
As a UN officer in the Middle East LT CDR Oakley’s brief was to observe and report on any violations of the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Syria and Israel. The150-strong UNTSO observers in the region gain situational awareness with an aim of
preventing isolated incidents from escalating into conflict. LT CDR Oakley says unarmed UNTSO officers are well received
in the area because they are perceived as impartial: “Our job is purely to observe, patrol, inspect and report,” he
For the first five months he worked from an Observation Post (seven nights at a stretch) before moving to a staff
position at Headquarters for the remaining seven months of his tour. “I’d been out in the field long enough to see how
things could be improved, so it was great to get the opportunity to instigate some change,” he says.
Bringing his family to live in Tiberias might sound like a big deal, but LT CDR Oakley said his wife had been to Israel
before and was prepared for all eventualities: “Lisa knew what to expect - though I still don’t know how she made that
forty-hour journey with three kids under five! She had a rental car and $2,000 US dollars on her at all times, and
agreed that if I recommended for her and the children to leave then they would. In the end, following a skirmish on the
border between Lebanon and Israel in early August, my family decided to return home to New Zealand.”
Nelson-born LT CDR Oakley said while his deployment to the Middle East was fascinating, it also taught him some things
about our country: “New Zealanders are known for their can-do attitude and for their impartiality in hot spots. The best
thing you can have over there is a kiwi patch on your shoulder. Contributing to UNTSO is great for raising the profile
of New Zealand. Considering we’ve only seven or eight people across five countries (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and
Egypt) working alongside 24 other nations, the visibility these few personnel give New Zealand is significant. Kiwis
have long had a presence in the region – I was amazed to see so many well-looked after ANZAC war graves there were in
Syria and Jerusalem.”
The Naval engineer says he’s also developed a new appreciation for the Kiwi culture, “I enjoy reading local media now as
many of the articles are a far cry from what I’d got used to reading in the Middle East where the media focus is on
conflict, peace talks, and threat levels. The local populace seem to live by reading the newspaper; they’re always
monitoring the situation.”
Having taken up a job at Defence Headquarters in Wellington as Personal Staff Officer to the Vice Chief of the Defence
Force, Rear Admiral Jack Steer, LT CDR Oakley is looking forward to the new challenge, after a traditional Kiwi
Christmas at home.