UNAMSIL: On The Edge Of Peace

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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

Jason Mayordomo has a tough assignment. A technology manager with the united nations peacekeeping force in sierra leone, he has to make sure information flows seamlessly between the U.N.'s local headquarters in freetown and its far-flung outposts on the remote edges of this war-ravaged country. In addition to dealing with the technical vagaries of remote outposts, equipment-disabling lightning strikes and the limited availability of replacement parts, he must also work with the knowledge that peace in this west african nation may very well depend on how well he does his job.

Oct. 29, 2003, United Nations heliport, Freetown, Sierra Leone

Half the seats on the 8:30 a.m. U.N. helicopter flight are taken by Pakistani soldiers returning to their base in Koidu, the Eastern Sector headquarters for the peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone. Crowded among them, along with the journalists and humanitarian workers, are Jason Mayordomo, the U.N. mission's communications and information-technology chief, and two members of his team.

The Koidu base is complaining of congested data-network links, a balky router and malfunctioning wireless-network nodes. Mayordomo and his team take the reports seriously. While such problems can cause headaches in the commercial world, here they can be fatal.

Koidu is a strategically important outpost at the heart of Sierra Leone's coveted diamond-mining territory, which lies less than 30 miles from the porous border with Liberia, a nearly lawless country decimated by two blood-soaked changes in regime in the past 20 years. Sierra Leone's own civil war ended in 2002, after a brutal 11-year struggle between successive government forces and a rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)—made up of the country's rural poor and backed by Liberian militia. The RUF was notorious for using children as soldiers and hacking off the hands of opponents with machetes and axes. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the U.S. government estimates that more than 2 million of the country's 5.7 million people have been displaced by the conflict and that "tens of thousands" have been killed. Three years ago rebel forces temporarily took some 500 U.N. staff as hostages.

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The United Nations Assistance Mission to Sierra Leone, or UNAMSIL, though, persists. After initially suffering from some of the same bureaucratic ineptitude and military failures that have marred other U.N. missions, UNAMSIL prevailed with a disarmament campaign that allowed Sierra Leone to reestablish a civilian government.

Now the people of this beleaguered African country are counting on the U.N. to maintain the peace.

But to maintain order, U.N military observers in Sierra Leone need to know what's going on. While the peacekeepers are scheduled to pull out of Sierra Leone in 2004, UNAMSIL's military observers in the field need to remain alert for signs of trouble—whether it's infiltration from Liberia or rock-throwing battles between tribes with rival claims to a diamond mine. The quality of the mission's communications and information services determines how quickly the observers can file the full reports that military commanders need to assess threats and allocate resources.

In order to keep information flowing, Mayordomo and his team of civilians must keep open the communications channels that connect 11,000 peacekeeping troops from more than 30 countries—a task compounded by the fact that many nations have brought in their own, incompatible computing gear. Any equipment failure could have disastrous consequences.

"Think of it," Mayordomo says. "Koidu is overrun by rebels, and we're saying, 'Wait just a minute, someone is changing the network switch.'" If the rebels take to combat or hostage-taking, they won't allow a timeout for reconfiguring a piece of equipment.

While most corporate project managers might not have to worry about battling armed insurgents, many of the difficulties faced by the U.N. mission are similar to the hurdles faced by project managers looking to set up mobile computing environments in remote locations—unreliable power and communications lines that are vulnerable to harsh weather, limited availability of replacement parts and on-site support personnel, and remote users who don't comply with standards and procedures.

But Mayordomo also must deal with the rugged terrain of Sierra Leone—a tropical country slightly smaller than South Carolina that's dotted with forests, swamps and mountains almost 2,000 feet tall. There are few paved roads and only one airport with a paved runway. If computer equipment breaks down in Koidu, there's no running to CompUSA—a replacement has to be flown in.

Mayordomo, a Filipino who originally trained as a mining engineer, was recruited by a U.N. economic-development program in the late 1980s to consult on the use of software he had written to analyze the potential of a mine versus its operational cost. He switched to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1996, after funding for the mining project dried up, and served as a technologies manager to peacekeeping missions in the Republic of Georgia, the Central African Republic and Congo.

In 2000, he was named DPKO's chief of information technology—a title he still holds—and is responsible for computer-vendor and technology choices across all missions. But in June he gave up his New York office for a chance to get back into the field. "When I'm in New York, I put things into effect but never get to see how it's working," he says.

So now he splits his attention between setting DPKO technology plans and overseeing the practical details of keeping the systems in Sierra Leone functioning. While the scale of the mission is smaller, he has the freedom to blur some boundaries, particularly the one between information and communications technology—hard distinctions within the U.N.'s bureaucracy—and focus on technical issues that he feels can make a difference as to whether the peace is kept in Sierra Leone. He currently is figuring out the best ways to use:

  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications. While DPKO hasn't embraced VoIP on a broad scale, Mayordomo can experiment with it within his own mission. In fact, he thinks it might help solve some of the network congestion complaints from Koidu. By installing a Cisco router capable of transmitting phone calls like data, as Internet packets, rather than using a separate voice communications channel, he hopes to reduce overall bandwidth consumption.

  • Wireless communications networks. Mayordomo thinks wireless can be a key to U.N. rapid deployment since setup is so much faster than for a wired network. He first used the technology after arriving in the Central African Republic in 1998 to find the network in shambles. Cables between buildings were hanging from tree branches—a typical case of technicians improvising a quick setup and never going back to clean up their work. Instead of rewiring, Mayordomo brought in Aironet wireless-networking equipment, back before Aironet was acquired by Cisco.

  • Power protection. Tropical Africa is one of the most lightning-prone areas in the world, subject to more than 200 days of lightning per year. Whether from lightning or an erratic power grid, electrical surges frequently overwhelm the grounding and protective devices the U.N. employs, damaging computer and networking equipment. Mayordomo is looking for solutions. One possibility: dissipation-array technology, which its developers claim can create an electromagnetic shield against lightning.

    Power protection, wireless communications, and VoIP are critical to the day-to-day operations at Koidu. Today, in fact, Mayordomo wants to see first-hand how DPKO's existing technology is holding up in the field.

    For peacekeeping, the ultimate test of any technology is how well it works on the ground. Mayordomo has made some use of VoIP at UNAMSIL's Freetown headquarters, but putting it in Koidu and requiring it to work over satellite connections is a much more stringent test. And for all his enthusiasm about wireless networking, making it work through Africa's tropical downpours and lightning storms is a challenge.

    Mayordomo is traveling to Koidu with two colleagues, Sivabalan Karuppiah and Ambrose Majongwe. Karuppiah, a contractor to the U.N. from Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd., is going to Koidu specifically to address wireless-networking problems. He boards the U.N. helicopter carrying a Panasonic Toughbook ruggedized laptop and a backpack containing a couple of spare Cisco Aironet units to use as a replacement for the malfunctioning wireless communications equipment at the base.

    Majongwe, a communications technician from Zimbabwe, boards the helicopter carrying a Cisco 3725 router like a suitcase. In addition to replacing a misbehaving router in Koidu, he hopes to put the VoIP capabilities of this one to the test. First, he has to defend it against the workers who want to pack it aboard as luggage. "No, I need to keep this with me," he says, settling into the last available seat, a fold-down contraption just inside the exit hatch.

    When the helicopter rotors work up to speed, conversation becomes impossible. Passengers don earmuffs. Mayordomo uses a set of earplugs, saved from a transatlantic flight. Majongwe takes a nap, putting his head down on the router balanced on his lap.

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    This article was originally published on 2004-01-16
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