UN: Managing Peace Through Infrastructure

Remote personnel, incompatible gear, unreliable power and equipment-disabling lightning strikes are just some of the obstacles confronting the technology managers supporting the United Nations' peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. Find out how they manag

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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. missions 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 Leones 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 Leones 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 countrys 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 countrys 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 whats going on. While the peacekeepers are scheduled to pull out of Sierra Leone in 2004, UNAMSILs military observers in the field need to remain alert for signs of trouble—whether its infiltration from Liberia or rock-throwing battles between tribes with rival claims to a diamond mine. The quality of the missions communications and information services determines how quickly the observers can file the full reports that military commanders need to assess threats and allocate resources.

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