In mid-October 2017, members of the Colombian Military Forces deployed to Egypt to support the peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula. The group, comprising 113 service members from the Colombian National Army and Navy, joined the 3rd Colombian Battalion attached to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO).
“It’s an honor to belong to the Colombian Battalion in the Sinai Peninsula,” Colombian National Army Sergeant First Class Jairo Quintero, a current MFO member, told Diálogo. “Even though it’s grueling work, away from family, and far from everything you know, it’s a very important opportunity in your military career to experience other cultures and serve your country from a different standpoint.”
The objective of the international mission is to maintain security in the region pursuant to the peace agreements between Egypt and Israel. The mission includes checkpoints operations in the area, reconnaissance patrols, observation posts, and ensuring navigation freedom through the Gulf of Aqaba, whose coastline is divided among Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
MFO is an independent international entity established as an alternative to the United Nations (UN) to fulfill the 1979 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. The treaty marked the end of 30 years of hostilities and set the borders between the two countries.
Both parties had called for the presence of a UN observer force. When the Security Council failed to give its approval, a protocol establishing MFO was negotiated. In April 1982, MFO’s mission began with international military forces, including Colombia. Twelve nations now participate in the multi-national force, with Uruguay being the only other Latin American country.
The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty divided the Sinai peninsula into four zones. Two of them account for most of the territory and fall under the security control of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The zone bordering Israel is the responsibility of the Israeli Defense Forces, while the intermediate zone is under MFO control. The international zone has two camps: the North Camp in El Gorah and the South Camp near the city of Sharm El Sheikh.
According to Sergeant First Class Wilmer Alejandro Calderón, who was a member of Colombia’s 3rd Battalion and returned to Colombia in June 2017, each MFO nation has a different responsibility. “They perform administrative, engineering, transport, intelligence work, and comprehensive actions, etc.,” he explained.
The Colombian Battalion works out of the North Camp. “We’re in charge of security watches, guarding the towers, the perimeters, the entrances and exits in the North Camp, and escorting convoys, among other security-related duties,” Sgt. 1st Class Calderón said.
The tour in Sinai entails certain challenges for Colombian service members. They have to adapt to the harsh desert climate and deal with the complexities of the zone, which serves as a battle ground for various extremist groups, including the Islamic State. During their 10-month tour, service members remain on base or in the patrol zone except for two weeks of leave to visit tourist sites in the region.
“It’s an experience that requires some strength. The confinement is difficult, weather conditions are extreme, and work is constant. Dealing with people from other countries who don’t speak Spanish can also be a challenge,” Sgt. 1st Class Calderón said. “But it’s an opportunity I’d love to have again.”
Training to deploy
Each year, Colombia does two changes of command to carry out the MFO’s mission. On this occasion, the 111th change of command included 11 officers, 21 non-commissioned officers, and 94 soldiers from the Colombian National Army as well as one officer, one petty officer, and five marines from the Colombian National Navy.
The group’s selection is done through a competitive application process that takes into account service members’ performance. “Going to Sinai is a dream that’s hard to achieve because you have to have a spotless performance record throughout your military career,” said Colombian National Army Captain Miguel Giraldo, who was a member of the Colombian Battalion in the 109th change of command. “I’ve been in the Army for 13 years and only now did I get the opportunity.”
Candidates undergo a series of physical and psychological tests to determine whether they are suited for the mission. For three months, they take courses on the regional context, MFO’s history and structure, as well as classes on aircraft, tanks, and improvised explosive devices, among others.
“The training is very important to adapt to conditions in the zone. We learn about the history of Egypt and Israel and about how to appropriately handle potential events as MFO members,” Capt. Giraldo explained. “But some really important parts are the intensive English course and the social and humanitarian training to help us deal with people from other countries.”
Peacekeeping operations represent a fundamental experience for Colombia. “The Colombian Battalion has been in the Sinai Peninsula for 35 years, raising Colombia’s stature abroad,” concluded Major General Ricardo Gómez Nieto, second commander of the Colombian National Army. “It’s an experience that enriches us and fills us with satisfaction.”