By Peter Mallett
The three members of Her HMCS Vancouver’s command team share a unique commonality.
They all served on Operation SAFARI, the Canadian Armed Forces’ contribution to the former United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in the mid-2000s.
Commander Jonathan Kouwenberg was there in 2005; his Executive Officer, Lieutenant-Commander Collin Forsberg, served from 2009 to 2010; and Coxswain, Chief Petty Officer First Class Steve Wist, was in Sudan in 2008.
“This isn’t by design; this is completely accidental,” said Kouwenberg. “I think we are probably a unique command team within the navy – all three of us having served on this mission in the middle of Africa.”
All three joined Vancouver in 2018 and their connection was discovered when Kouwenberg perused their biographies.
He and Forsberg worked as military observers, while CPO1 Wist was stationed at the UN’s supply depot and logistical center in El-Obeid.
Their respective experience in Sudan differed based on the year and the location of their mission. For Kouwenberg, it was at the start of Operation SAFARI and UN observers were unarmed. He worked and lived in a remote village along with eight other UN military observers. He and three other members of the team – a Russian, an Ecuadorian and a Mexican officer – regularly conducted long-range patrols in remote regions where armed clashes between rival tribes and gangs often occurred.
“We patrolled arid areas of the countryside that were essentially in the middle of nowhere, with no support and very little in the way of medical or armed assistance. We would routinely be driving down roads that had not been cleared of mines and took substantial personal risk in order to get out there and do what the UN needed us to do.”
LCdr Forsberg’s experience differed greatly. He arrived towards the end of UNMIS, when much of the armed conflict had begun to subside and a degree of peace had been restored. By his time, UN troops were armed.
He monitored joint integrated security units with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese Armed Forces serving alongside each other. He also worked with a diverse UN team to accomplish their mission.
“It was a fantastic deployment and something I would like to do again,” said Forsberg. “Getting to know and work with people from Sudan and other countries of the United Nations, all with such varying backgrounds and experiences, was truly incredible.”
All three men agreed that taking part in the mission was the “experience of a lifetime” and one they will always cherish. May 29 was especially poignant for them as it was International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. They took a respective moment to reflect on the day that pays tribute to them, and to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in UN peacekeeping operations. The day honours their professionalism, dedication and courage, and the memory of those who died in the cause of peace.
The Canadian Armed Forces currently have 10 personnel deployed through the Canadian Joint Operations Centrt on Operation SOPRANO, Canada’s contribution to the UN’s Mission in South Sudan.