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Christmas in Syria

MARYKE PENMAN
Last updated 05:00 20/12/2012
Syrian Xmas
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MIDDLE EAST CHRISTMAS: New Zealand Army Captain Gareth Hickey is on a 12-month deployment with the United Nations to the Golan Heights on the border between Syria and Israel.

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Christmas on the Syrian border will be celebrated with a roast chicken and a satellite call home for New Zealand Army Captain Gareth Hickey.

The ex-Rosmini College student from the East Coast Bays is one of eight Kiwis on a 12-month deployment in the Golan Heights working as a United Nations military observer for the peacekeeping operation UNTSO.

"Our job is to visit military installations and ensure the Syrian armed forces are abiding by the agreement they signed as to the equipment they are allowed.

"We keep them honest basically."

Mr Hickey will not see his partner and three children again until next September.

He will live at an isolated observation post in the mountainous terrain between Syria and Israel until then.

Christmas Day will be spent working with just one other colleague and apart from a roast dinner, he says the occasion will register little significance.

Mr Hickey has become accustomed to living with danger on his doorstep since joining the army in 1998.

He has completed four assignments, a total of 20 months, in Afghanistan.

"Although unpredictable, here it

is a quite a benign environment as opposed to Afghanistan where it was always quite tense and you never knew what was coming.

"But there have still been a few incidents. We are not a target, but if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time things can change very quickly."

Some Syrian soldiers, he says, suspect UN observers of being aligned with the enemy.

"It is a mixed bag each time we meet a commander. If he's had a bad day that will come our way too.

"Many don't know what the UN is and, although we are in a clearly marked vehicle and I'm wearing a New Zealand Army uniform, there is a lot of mistrust. Some think we are spying on them."

A fellow Kiwi military observer was captured by armed men on December 10 while conducting a routine patrol of the border between Syria and Jordan.

His vehicle was stopped and he was held along with his Austrian colleague for about three hours before being released unharmed.

Those perils are to be expected, Mr Hickey says, and the occasional confrontation is a reminder not to take his safety for granted.

"People tend to associate Arabs with the whole terrorist thing. It is a real shame because often it is the people that are trying to get on with their lives that are the ones that suffer.

"I have a lot of time for the Syrian people, they are very nice."

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Mr Hickey says he enjoys his leave visiting other parts of the country where civilians can walk around unthreatened.

"I head across the border to get back to some sort of normality.

"It is just coming into winter here and we can see the green coming through. It is very beautiful, it reminds me a lot of New Zealand in places . . . ." "I miss the New Zealand summer. We are in a landlocked country and so finally being able to have a barbecue at the beach will be really nice."

- North Shore Times

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