Filipino peacekeepers from Liberia and the meaning of Christmas

Carmela Fonbuena
Filipino peacekeepers from Liberia and the meaning of Christmas
It's a belated Heroes Welcome for the Filipino peacekeepers deployed in Liberia. They get a 30-day vacation to spend the holidays with their families.

MANILA, Philippines – How do you expect Camp Aguinaldo to get into a celebratory mood when a strong typhoon is coming and the military top brass just came from a meeting with President Benigno Aquino III with strict instructions to prepare troops and assets on the ground?

The afternoon rain didn’t help. There were no parades and formations for the 108 Filipino peacekeepers, mostly airmen, who arrived from Ebola-affected Liberia last month. They ended up sitting in the grandstand to listen to some speeches and later fell in line to get their United Nations (UN) Service Medals from Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr and Air Force chief Lieutenant General Jeffrey Delgado.

HONORED: All United Nations peacekeepers get  the UN Service Medal. Rappler photo

The Heroes Welcome on Thursday, November 4, dragged on and – one by one – bored children approached the seats of fathers they haven’t seen for about a year. So much for a Heroes Welcome 3 weeks late. 

Then they lit the giant Christmas tree inside the military headquarters and the mood suddenly changed. The formalities of the program were dispensed with and the peacekeepers were finally with their families. Together they watched the fireworks display with palpable excitement.

Peacekeeper Staff Sergeant Terry Parado is thrilled that he’ll get to spend Christmas with his family after about a year apart.

Masayang masaya. Paskong-pasko na. Pagdating pa lang namin dito, feeling na namin masayang masaya na,” Parado said. (We are very happy. It feels like Christmas already. The moment we returned to the Philippines, we felt very happy.)

Peacekeeper Staff Sergeant Victor De Fiesta said Christmas means bonding time with the family. “Ngayon, pahinga muna tapos enjoy life lang. Bonding muna ng kaunti sa pamilya,” he said. (Right now, we’ll take a rest and just enjoy life. We’ll spend the vacation time bonding with the family.)

Protecting ceasefire in Liberia

The story of the peacekeepers in Liberia may not be as riveting as the dramatic escape of Filipino troops previously deployed to the Golan Heights, but it’s a story of courage and heroism, too. They were deployed to Liberia to help the UN implement the ceasefire agreement that ended the Second Liberian Civil War.

Instead of cheers, they were shunned at home because of fears they may have brought the deadly virus into the country. But they didn’t. After a 3-week precautionary quarantine on Caballo Island, all 108 tested negative for Ebola, and for that a Thanksgiving mass was held. 

EARLY CHRISTMAS. Staff Sergeant Viktor De Fiesta says Christmas means spending time with the family. Rappler photo

In his speech, Catapang brought about the Christmas spirit by comparing their sufferings to that of baby Jesus when he was born. “I would even see that you were like the child that was about to be born and nobody welcomed you here in the Philippines. In as much as we considered you as heroes, the threat forced us to decide to bring you to Caballo Island,” Catapang said. 

The original plan was to quarantine the troops inside the Armed Forces Peacekeeping Operations Center in Camp O’Donnel in Capas, Tarlac. But the local government protested and they were instead isolated on Caballo Island located at the mouth of Manila Bay.

There were two scares after they arrived – one who developed fever tested positive for malaria, and another who had hypertension remains in the hospital.

Catapang added: “We must be reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. Aside from the merriment and the festive celebrations, let us reflect for a while on the true meaning and essence of this season.”

Peacekeeper De Fiesta said he didn’t mind the public’s reaction. “Accepted naman namin na ang procedure talaga ay i-quarantine kami. Sa Liberia ganoon din naman. In-examine din kami,” De Fiesta added. (We accepted the fact that the quarantine is part of the procedure. It was the same in Liberia. We were also examined.)

Mascots, prizes

The peacekeepers cheered the loudest when Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin announced they can go home to their families in spite of the military’s red alert status because of typhoon Ruby (Hagupit). Vacations are not allowed when red alert is raised. 

HAPPY CHILDREN: Enchanted Kingdom mascots provide entertainment for the kids. Rappler photo

When the mascots of Enchanged Kingdom came out, the children got excited and fell in line to get photos. It also means the troops can bring their families to amusement park this Christmas for free.

The night ended with prizes for the games the peacekeepers played on Caballo Island to kill time and boredom.  

The peacekeepers then began their 30-day vacation while the rest of the military continued preparations for Typhoon Ruby. They’ll serve again another time. –

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