At the United Nation’s desert outpost in Smara, Western Sahara, there is one native English-speaker, one Irish person, and one woman; Captain Aine Flynn of Athlone.
As a UN Military Observer (UNMO ), Capt Flynn, 30, has been helping keep watch on the fragile peace between the Royal Moroccan Army and the forces of the Frente Polisario (FPOL ) for the past six months.
MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, has been monitoring the ceasefire since 1991. Although the mission has included a female Irish captain in the past, Capt Flynn is the first Irishwoman based on a team site. Smara is 150km outside headquarters in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara.
There are 30 UNMOs based at Camp Swing at Smara and Capt Flynn is their operations officer (G3 ). In addition to the hundreds of kilometres of car patrolling that all team site UNMOs undertake daily, a G3’s job is to plan weekly schedules and organise local operations.
She also liaises daily with headquarters, where fellow-Irish UNMO, Lt Col Frank O’Reilly, is Chief Operations and Plans Officer (COPO ). With so many national armies represented, each with different ranking structures, people are usually addressed by their job title. Lt Col O’Reilly would typically address Capt Flynn as G3; she would address him as COPO.
Smara is on the west side of the berm, a sand barrier 2,000km in total, separating land occupied by the Moroccan army and that held by FPOL. Much of this territory was mined during the 1980s. MINURSO patrols follow safe tracks, using satellite-positioning equipment. Any discovered mines are reported to the Moroccan army, which defuses them. As observers, UNMOs carry no weapons. On the berm’s west side, the Moroccans supply water and cooks to the team sites. East of the berm, these are supplied by FPOL.
MINURSO works closely on a daily basis with the adversaries, helping keep a delicate ceasefire in check. There is no formal peace agreement between the two sides, only three military agreements, signed unilaterally by each party with the UN.
There is one other Irish UNMO in Western Sahara, an area nearly four times bigger than Ireland. Capt James Hourigan is based on a team site at Tifariti, in FPOL territory. Shortly after arriving at the mission, the two captains attended a New Year’s Eve party in Laayoune, where local Muslim culture ensured a strict no-alcohol policy. All three Irish nationals managed to vote in the recent election, via a courier sent from Ireland.
Although of Aine Flynn’s immediate family only one grandfather had a military connection, Athlone is a garrison town and the future captain grew up knowing other cadets. Amid fierce competition, she began 21 months of military training at the Curragh cadet school in Co Kildare in October 1999, before studying Law and Italian at NUI Galway. She has also recently completed a Masters degree at UCD in Criminology and Criminal Justice, subjects she finds fascinating.
Captain Flynn’s military career has included a 10 month mission posting in Kosovo, where she was an operations officer at the task force centre. She was due to join the Irish contingent in Chad, but this was cancelled when the mandate was not renewed. Lt Col O’Reilly, 55, originally from Cork, also served in missions in Kosovo, Lebanon, Syria, and Bosnia.
UN peacekeeping missions of Ireland, France, and the UK last six months as standard. Those of most other countries last a year.
Closer to home, Capt Flynn was aide-de-camp to Mary McAleese at the presidential house, Áras an Uachtaráin. Her role there was to liaise with military and civilian visitors, as well as accompanying the president on official tours. She became a captain at 26, on the young side of a normal army profile.
Being based at a tiny team site surrounded by thousands of miles of desert has fed a deep love of reading. “You have to be comfortable with your own company,” she explained. When on leave, travel is her passion, frequently alone. She has visited South America, Australia, and China.
While she is unsure of what the future may hold, it seems safe to say that Aine Flynn has got the travelling bug.