Finnish UN observers return from Syria: “It was full-on war”
One Finnish officer receives last-minute orders to remain in Damascus for two more weeks
“The situation in Syria is critical, unstable, and somehow bipolar in its way. People are getting killed every day, but on the other hand efforts are being made to keep life as normal as possible. This bipolar reality is not easy to take in”, Capt. Harri Huttunen describes his sentiments at the Tampere-Pirkkala Airport on Wednesday night.
Huttunen returned to Finland from Damascus together with Lt. Cmdr Mikko Suomela, where the two had taken part in the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) operation.
In all, the men spent four months in the turbulent Middle Eastern country.
The third Finnish military observer still stationed in Syria, Major Raine Pölönen, was also supposed to return home on Wednesday.
On Tuesday night, however, the United Nations asked Finland to leave one officer behind to take part in the shutdown of the UN operation.
Pölönen is expected to remain in the country for another two weeks or so.
The objective of the UN operation in Syria was to supervise the ceasefire negotiated by the UN special envoy and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Unfortunately, the ceasefire never took hold.
“It was full-on, flat-out war”, Huttunen says.
He was stationed in the Hama Governate, the province where some of the bloodiest battles of the civil war have so far taken place.
According to Huttunen, the worst hotspots were the cities of Latakia and in Daraa to the south.
Huttunen explains how he found himself several times in situations where demonstrations erupted into violence.
“You imagine, when 500 people with stones in their hands turn against a group of only a few individuals, and all you have to protect yourself with is a helmet and body armour.”
”It was tough going, especially given that supposedly you were there to help them. “
Huttunen emphasises that one cannot prepare oneself for the realities of a civil war.
“Encountering the wounded and the dead is not something that can be rehearsed beforehand. One just has to get on with the task in hand.”
”In that sense we had no idea in April what we were getting ourselves into.”
Last week, the UN Security Council ruled unanimously that under the present security conditions the continuing of the UNSMIS operation was not feasible.
The UNSMIS mandate came to an end at midnight on August 19th.
Both Suomela and Huttunen say that they understand the decision.
“The situation has just got worse over there [since the start of the UN operation]. The fighting has escalated from sporadic outbreaks to cover almost the entire country”, Suomela says.
“At some point, undoubtedly, there will be peace, but I’m afraid that it will take some time. It doesn’t look good”, Huttunen adds.
In all, there were ten Finnish observers in Syria, five of whom returned home in July and two more last week.
Now, all that remains in Syria of the UNSMIS mission is a small UN office in Damascus, with Maj. Raine Pölönen among those overseeing the shutdown.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Last Finnish UN observers to leave Syria (17.8.2012)
Ahtisaari proposes elections as honourable path for Syrian President (6.8.2012)
Monitoring the Syria ceasefire (22.5.2012)
Syrian refugees tell HS that rebels hold villages near Aleppo (2.8.2012)