Risking Your Life for Peace


What does it take to stay calm in the crossfire?

Unaisi Vuniwaqa has witnessed terrible suffering. As the Assistant Secretary-General for Safety and Security, she has worked as a UN peacekeeper in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

“Sometimes it can be very overwhelming, you really feel for the people and the suffering that they’re going through.”

Peacekeepers have one of the toughest roles in the United Nations. Serving in brutal conflicts, such as that in South Sudan, can mean drawing on all their reserves of courage and ingenuity. In this episode, Unaisi Vuniwaqa reflects on what it takes to keep a cool head while in mortal danger and on maintaining the safety of UN staff and peacekeepers around the world.

Sometimes it can be very overwhelming. You really feel for the people and the suffering that they’re going through. They didn’t deserve it, particularly women and children and they had to endure and go through those difficult situations in their own countries.

I’m Melissa Fleming. Welcome to Awake at Night, the bite-sized edition. My colleague Unaisi Lutu Vuniwaqa went from growing up and working in the Pacific Island of Fiji to working in a peacekeeping operation in South Sudan, where she witnessed terrible suffering. She’s now here in New York, working as the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Safety and Security, which is responsible for safety and security of UN staff and peacekeepers around the globe. She started out her career as a police officer in the 1980s, which as she told me was not a traditional career choice for a young woman like her.

During those days, joining the police was quite unheard of. And it was more that young women were venturing into [the] teaching profession as well as nursing profession. In my case, it was more of a default getting into the police. But to be honest, looking back at something that I have thoroughly enjoyed – my career life – I was trying to actually get into teaching. But I had an elder sister that actually said, ‘Look, why don’t you try to join the police’. Joining the police in our country back then, you get the training for six months. And then after that you graduate, and then you are able to wear the uniform and go out into the police station and start work.

I guess in order to undergo this training, you had to leave the small volcanic island where you grew up, which must have been a big step. Can you just describe like what was this island… home island look like?

Yes, the small island that I come from… If you’ll have time to go into the map, you probably won’t be able to find the island itself. But the island is shaped in a horseshoe. So, I come from where the actual bay is within that island. So, it’s such a beautiful scenery with white sandy beaches, palm trees, and very untouched in terms of the vegetation. So, I still recall myself running around those white sandy beaches sometimes that I longed to go back to. So, I come from one of those smaller islands outside the main city or the main island that has a capital city, which is about eight hours boat ride away. Yeah. So, I grew up in a family where my parents were more like missionaries within the region. So, they were Christians, and you know how that would influence my life as well, in terms of the values that I have. I think I was 12 or 13 years [old] that I had to leave the island, leave my parents, and actually come into the main city in search for education. And to live with relatives so that I can be able to get education.

And you said that your parents were missionaries. And that those values were instilled in you. What would you say are the top values that you really take with you?

I think from what I have been thinking about, you know, and reflecting back, it’s more to do with genuine love and support for one another, for fellow humans. Even as a child, and that is something that is always passed on to us from our parents. I come from a big family of my siblings, eleven of us all together. I know that’s unheard of in this day and age. But yes, we definitely had a big family. So, scarcity was part of our life and the value of genuine love and sharing with one another. That was something that we were brought up with. And just to be there to look out for each other. And that kind of transcended not only within the family, you know, that we have, but also to other children that we live with in the village. And that’s something that has been part of our lives when we grew up until now.

So, helping others beyond the family.

That’s right.

And somehow the idea of policing felt like an extension of that community service?

Definitely. That has been the very, you know, values that really helped me to also try and instill that in my work life. Valuing others and making sure that we are there to support and also the service. The part of our lives into service. That’s something that was not foreign to me because it has been there and instilled in my life much earlier, in my younger days.

Paint a picture for us of what kind of crimes you were trying to prevent and arrest people for and what was the situation like during the time you were there.

With the Fiji police, in the crime environment in Fiji, most of the crimes that we were dealing with were related to theft. Not often we see murder cases in the islands. But as of now, it’s beginning to get into those serious crimes that are emerging, and also the transnational crime. I’m not trying to just paint a good picture of Fiji here. But I’m just saying, you know, in terms of the crime environment, back in the days when I first started, there were a lot of cases that we were dealing with – assault, robbery and theft. And also, in certain cases and at a certain time, there were a lot of… Not a lot, but like it was beginning to come forward – the reporting of sexual and gender-based violence. It was also coming through.

I wonder what your private life was during this time. It sounds like you were a very committed, police officer, investigator, leader of the task force, I guess, on gender-based violence. Did you have any time for private life?

I have a family. I have my husband, who was also a police officer. But he’s now retired. And juggling work and family has been a challenge as well.

I can imagine. So, you are first a police officer couple, and then bringing up four children. And then you after many, many years of service, you decided to take on a new challenge. And that was to join the UN, after you had risen to very high ranks, I believe in the Fijian police force. How did you learn about the potential of the United Nations for people like you?

Yeah. I wasn’t into peacekeeping until the very late part of my career. As well, as I mentioned that I was also married to… I’m also married to a former police officer. And he was the one that was actually going on peacekeeping much earlier. And I was the one at home and supporting our children.

So, your husband was a UN peacekeeper?

He was also a UN peacekeeper.


I think he did Kosovo. He did South Sudan. There was another mission that he went to – Bosnia.

Well, you made it into the UN. 2016?

That’s right.

And you ended up in one of the most challenging security situations in the world, in South Sudan. What was that like?

I was in South Sudan when we had the crisis situation in Juba in 2016. That was the one that they had the fight between the two major parties of the warring parties of South Sudan. In fact, they were on either side of the UN base, and they were firing over the UN base at each other. The experience itself is something that I haven’t been in those kinds of environments before. And the fighting took place for two days. And I was in the workplace at the time and not in my accommodation. So, there were only a few of us that were in the office at the time. And of course, when the shooting started, we have to find… We were already under the table. As we were trying to take cover in terms of the shooting that we were hearing, the shooting that was going on. So yeah, it’s quite a challenge to even go through those kinds of situations. But as peacekeepers we have to endure and be able to carry on with the work that we do.

So yeah, of course you would say that. That’s being very courageous of course as a police officer would say. But it must have been frightening because you were really caught in the middle and as peacekeepers you’re not there to engage in active combat. You’re there to keep peace. And so, in a way there was… You had to only resort to laying low and hiding under your desk.

Yeah, that’s right. And also, in addition to that, we had the internally displaced persons and the nearby communities that were also coming into the base to take shelter during those two days. Women and children with their family coming over through the fence into the UN base.

What was your…? I mean, you said that you’ve never seen scenes like this. What were you feeling at the time when you witnessed this kind of desperation and masses of displaced people seeking shelter?

Sometimes it can be very overwhelming. At that particular time, you just feel… You really feel for the people and the suffering that they’re going through. They didn’t deserve it as fellow humans, particularly women and children. And they had to endure and go through those difficult situations in their own country. So, it’s just something very overwhelming, I must say, Melissa.

I know that your husband was back home with your children. At least he understood. He had also served in South Sudan. He could imagine what you were going through. But I wonder, was he or were the children worried for you?

In 2016, I think so. They were still very worried about me. Especially during the crisis when it was going on. But other than that, when [the] situation was getting better, things were a little bit better. Okay. And okay. Otherwise, I know that overall, they still have that thinking that, you know, anything can change anytime, because [the] security situation can always be unpredictable. Being in those environments.

I guess, then they just missed you. So now you are here in New York. We’re talking at UN headquarters, and you’re the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Safety and Security. This is for the UN staff all over the world. This department is responsible for that kind of security. So, what keeps you awake at night these days?

Just making sure that our people are safe. That United Nations can still be there to deliver its important role to people and also maintain peace. That of course, we maintain life in terms of the important delivery of the role of the United Nations.

And what would you say to a young woman thinking of joining the police or an international service like the police at the UN?

I would like to just confirm, you know, if you are thinking of joining, please join. It’s such an opportune time for women, particularly to join the United Nations in terms of how you can contribute to the service for humanity. As well as, representing women within the Organisation that is really out there to bring peace and prosperity. And just also to serve humanity wherever we are.

What do you hope for your children and their world?

I know that the world that we’re in is a huge challenge right now. I think for us as parents, and also as professionals, we want to see that our children live in a safer world. And I think that’s something that we should all work towards. That we hand over… They take over from us, a world that they can enjoy with the generations to come.

Unaisi, thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you very much, Melissa. It’s a pleasure.