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Squadron Leader Allison Wells

February 2013
Postcard from Jerusalem

by Squadron Leader Allison Wells


Greetings from the Holy Land, where I am serving in the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO)!
UNTSO was established in 1948 when the state of Israel came into being and is the first United Nations peacekeeping mission. UNTSO operates in Syria, Israel and Lebanon with a liaison office in Egypt. It remains in the Middle East to monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other United Nations peacekeeping operations in the region. With 153 Military Observers, UNTSO is relatively small by UN standards.

After five months in Syria, working in Damascus and the Golan Heights, I am now based in Jerusalem as the Deputy Chief Military Personnel Officer. This is quite a change from my time in Syria, where I spent most of my time working in a two-person outpost for seven-day periods, either inspecting and patrolling the Syrian-administered Golan Heights and surrounding areas using an armoured vehicle or carrying out static operations from the outpost’s lookout tower.

My current job is equally challenging as I deal with all aspects of personnel management to meet the staffing challenges in an organisation that relies on the constant rotation of military personnel from 25 countries. The job is even more complex at this time due to the ever-changing security environment.

Jerusalem is a small city with a land area of 125 sq km and a population of 800,000. At its heart is the walled Old City, home to the cornerstones of the world’s three major faiths --- Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The historical and religious significance of Israel cannot be overemphasised from the Western Wall of Judaism, the Via Dolorosa, which traces the last steps of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built around the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection, to the Dome of the Holy Rock, which is the third holiest site of Islam. All these sites are within walking distance of the UNTSO headquarters and breathtaking doesn’t begin to describe the view from our headquarters overlooking the city. We did not have a white Christmas because the snow came two weeks late. But looking out over a snow-covered Jerusalem landscape, I could not help but appreciate how special this part of the world is.

I have had many highlights in my deployment so far but the greatest highlight is the amazing friendliness of the local people and those I work with. My boss, LT COL Ulf Staredeldt, is Swedish and I work with representatives from the Netherlands, Estonia, the United States, France, Switzerland, Denmark, China, Finland and Ireland. I am not sure whether driving on the ‘right-hand’ (wrong) side of the road counts as a highlight but I’ve learnt very quickly not to complicate things (or rather, frighten myself) by looking in the rear vision mirror or indicating, given that Syria follows the French rule of giving way to traffic entering a roundabout. I found this rather daunting at first on a four-lane (or more, depending on the day) roundabout with seven exits. There are no words to describe what it’s like driving in Israel….

I feel very privileged to be part of UNTSO. With three months left in my deployment, I still have many more fabulous experiences to look forward to before I return to the New Zealand winter.