By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2004-01-16 Print this article Print

Remote personnel, incompatible computer gear, unreliable power and communications lines, and equipment-disabling lightning strikes are just some of the obstacles confronting the technology managers supporting the United Nations' peacekeeping mission in Si

. 28, DPKO Headquarters, Freetown, Sierra Leone">

Oct. 28, DPKO Headquarters, Freetown, Sierra Leone

The day before Mayordomo is to go to Koidu, he's at the Mammy Yoko Hotel. The place was a luxury hotel back when Sierra Leone was a British colony and a seaside resort. But the pool has been drained of water, and weeds are growing up through cracks in the tennis courts. Vehicles coming in the gates are checked for bombs, and white U.N. vehicles, mostly Toyota 4Runners, are parked helter-skelter around a dirt lot.

When the headquarters staff took over the building, the U.N. restored several floors that had suffered bomb damage, but the interior still looks ragged. Mayordomo points out the exposed network wires hanging from the ceiling, then opens up a plumbing and ventilation closet to show how they're strung between floors. On the way out, he shows a conduit containing strands of fiber-optic cables snaking up the pillars on the hotel's back porch, paralleling some older wiring. "It's really quite messy," he admits.

Peacekeeping missions pose unique challenges. Typically, the peacekeepers come in after years of war and destruction of the local infrastructure. Telecommunications and power systems are unreliable, if they're operating at all, so the U.N. must be capable of providing its own power, phone and Internet services.

Downhill from the hotel is a cluster of prefab buildings, constructed from shipping containers stacked two high, with open drainage ditches running between them. Mayordomo has his office in one of these containers. In the adjacent lot, several satellite dishes study the sky from within a fenced area bracketed by another cluster of these containerized offices. One dish mounted on a trailer sits next to a Ford van meant to function as a miniature, movable computer-and-communications center.

Known as the Mobile Data Telecommunications System, the van was custom-built by Frontline Communications, a company that mostly specializes in television-news vans. It carries about $100,000 worth of servers and satellite-communications equipment. A fold-down panel on the outside provides access to power, phone and Ethernet sockets instead of video jacks. On a full tank of gas, the built-in generator provide 24 hours of power.

This van will help UNAMSIL in the event the mission has to evacuate, taking with it a subset of essential information systems. Over the summer, when the U.N. was gearing up for its peacekeeping effort in Liberia, two similar vans were prepared in this courtyard. Once packed with servers and radio-communications equipment, they were flown to Liberia on Aug. 23 and driven with their satellite-dish trailers in tow to Monrovia, the Liberian capital.

This initiative was part of the reason Mayordomo came to Sierra Leone. In addition to promising to straighten out UNAMSIL's technology problems, he told his boss he would prepare a "virtual mission" containing all the technology that would be needed at the beginning of a new mission in Liberia. Even earlier, on Aug. 4, communications specialists from Sierra Leone had gone to Liberia to prepare.

On the wall in Mayordomo's office is a satellite image of the abandoned U.N. facility, a relic of a previous peacekeeping mission, that they targeted as an initial base of operations. Details of the compound are outlined in red, including the satellite dish inside the walls.

Communications manager John McKenzie joins Mayordomo in front of the map to tell that part of the story. "There are a lot of Liberians in Freetown, and we were able to make contact with a woman who lived right here," he says, pointing to the rooftop of a house just down the street. "We had her walk by every day to see if the dish was still intact. Then we went in light, just a couple of guys. We were lucky—all they had to do was pour gas in the generator and find the satellite."

Strictly speaking, there was no mission to support in August. A regional peacekeeping force, organized by the Economic Community of West African States, was active in Liberia, but the U.N. Security Council didn't provide the mandate or funding for DPKO to intervene until September.

Mayordomo's approach to rapid deployment was to have everything ready before the official word came. He had Internet access, Lotus Notes and other basic systems operational in Liberia two weeks before the assessment team arrived. There was even a finance system so the bureaucrats who would be following close behind the soldiers could account for where the mission's money went. All this helped the assessment team complete its work quickly and get the go-ahead for an Oct. 1 mission startup.

"I'm very proud of what we did there," says Erzen Ilijazi, a network-management supervisor who was part of the team that prepared the technology, then flew into Liberia to set it up. UNAMSIL technical staff spent three days setting up 11 servers and configuring about $100,000 worth of equipment on the server racks in the back of each van.

After flying to Liberia, the UNAMSIL technicians took the van by convoy to their destination in Monrovia. "I think we got there about 4 p.m., and we had everything ready by 9 p.m.—that's anti-virus, network, Internet, satellite dish so they can be online, VHF, UHF, mobile communications, all in five or six hours," Ilijazi says.

Despite the professional rewards, Ilijazi didn't enjoy his time in Monrovia. "I saw a lot of people in civilian clothes, guys on the street, walking around with automatic weapons," he says. "I don't like to see that." He had enough of that in Kosovo, where he lived before using a job with the U.N. as his ticket out of the Balkans.


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