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Sinai soldiers – Kiwis in the Middle East


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Feature Story

Sinai soldiers – Kiwis in the Middle East

By Judith Martin

In a Sinai base just 40 km from the turbulent Gaza Strip, New Zealand Army driver Lance Corporal Kylie Fastier can't wait to get on the road to Israel.

It's no ordinary road, and she's no ordinary truckie. And despite the increased risk of terrorist activity in the Middle East in recent weeks, the day has started well for this Sinai soldier.

Diminutive – she barely reaches her truck’s wing mirror – it’s her birthday today, and as she turns 22, it's another day in paradise for a Wanganui kid who was brought up loving trucks, and now drives them for a living in the heart of the Middle East.

Signs of past tensions in the nearby area are apparent, with Israeli tanks still patrolling the Gaza border, and various militant factions threatening each other. The suicide car bombing at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Shiek in southern Sinai in late July killed 88 people, and on August 15 a roadside bomb exploded just south of the camp where the New Zealanders are based. In the latter incident a van driven by two Canadians was seriously damaged but there were no serious injuries.

Corporal Fastier is one of eight New Zealand Defence Force drivers who ferry huge Volvos around the Middle East in support of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) an organisation that monitors, from two camps in the Sinai Peninsula, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and works to prevent any treaty violations.

An independent organisation, the MFO number about 2200 personnel, 600 of them civilians, from countries including the United States, New Zealand, Columbia, Fiji, Norway, Canada, France Italy, Uruguay, Australia and Hungary.

Commanding Officer of the New Zealand contingent, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Gawn says as tensions in the Middle East have heightened slightly, the threat level in the Sinai has recently increased.

“Our personnel are not immune to terrorist activities. We have certain movement restrictions in place, and we are always vigilant. We are constantly monitoring the regional and global situation to assess the potential impact on our personnel and operations.”

But terrorism is a remote thought in Kylie Fastier’s head. Her soldier mates have showered her with presents, and, in the evening a small party is planned. A day later she will step up to a dais, shake hands with MFO Commander Lieutenant General Roberto Martinelli, and, along with a group of other New Zealand drivers, receive a commendation which mentions her “outstanding performance of duties in achieving 30,000 accident-free kilometres of driving.”

In the meantime though, a trip to Israel and back beckons. And that could mean dodging the odd wandering camel or donkey, not to mention the hordes she will have to ease her vehicle past during market day at nearby el Gorah.

Potential terrorist threats aside, for the Sinai’s Kiwi truckies, there are other, maybe just as serious threats to consider, considering what they are driving: wandering camels, potholes (they are large and frequent,) the unusual local driving habits (blind corners don’t register) sand drifts, endless stretches of desert, and the relentless heat.

"It's what makes the job interesting," says Corporal Fastier."You have to keep your wits about you all the time, much more so than in New Zealand. I love trucks – my dad was a truckie, and I’d sit up in the cab with him whenever I could. Driving over here is just the best job.”

Market day in nearby el Gorah is mayhem, she admits. “You have to stay alert to anything. People here just wander across the roads, and when the kids hear a truck coming they’ll race out to see it. We always make sure we get a good night’s sleep though, so it’s no trouble staying alert.”

North Camp where most of the Kiwis are based, is at el Gorah and provides logistical and operational support for the force, members of which work from about 30 remote outposts spilt between three battalions and scattered along the length of the peninsula next to the Israeli border and the Gulf of Aqaba. It is just 40km from Gaza, the strip of land from where 15,000 Jewish settlers were recently evicted after 38 years of occupation.

The MFO mans checkpoint and observation posts, and monitors any alleged violations. Observers keep their eye on the borders, especially near Gaza. Violations are investigated, and recommendations made to the MFO Director General, who decides on further courses of action.

There are 28 New Zealanders in the MFO, and as well as the team of drivers, and support staff, they include a training group who provide the formal driving and operational training for the MFO. Personnel come from their own countries with skills for their core tasks, and the Kiwis provide them with all licence testing, unit driver training courses, and specialist courses, as well as defensive driving. They also provide senior personnel from contributing countries with skills to run remote outposts.

The drivers supply all the outposts with fresh water, pick up goods from Israel and deliver them to the two camps. Corporal Michael Fraser, who oversees the driving team, says driving a left-hand drive vehicle on the right side of the road requires a lot of concentration at first.

“When our drivers arrive (from New Zealand) they are already skilled, but we do a bit of fine-tuning here before they are tested and begin completing missions.”

The high accident rate in the harsh Egyptian conditions was one of the reasons for the establishment of formal training for MFO members.

Sergeant Nicholas Matthews, an Army fitter and turner by trade, is also a qualified driving instructor, and with a team of other New Zealanders, tests the driving skills of all peacekeepers joining the MFO. He ensures they are familiar with MFO regulations, including Israeli and Egyptian road rules. Having an interpreter on hand helps, he says.

“The language barriers are difficult, but we share a common background (in the military) so that helps. I get a buzz out of teaching people, and I have to say my Spanish is improving.”

ENDS

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