Kielce, Poland, 7 July 1998, (RFE/RL) -- Poles are proud of the history of their army. Polish soldiers fought repeatedly over the ages for their country independence and freedom, and also for the freedom of the future United States of America during the American Revolutionary War. They were actively involved in both the First and the Second World Wars.
In recent years, Polish soldiers have been proving their mettle not on the battlefield, however, but in peacekeeping operations from Haiti to Cambodia; Bosnia to Rwanda.
Poland is the world's number-one supplier of troops to UN peacekeeping missions in danger zones. Poland currently has about 1,500 soldiers serving as peacekeepers and UN and OSCE military observers, and this year celebrates 25 years as a permanent contributor to UN peace missions. It's experience that Polish military men say will serve the country well when it enters NATO next year.
Why are Poles in such demand as peacekeepers? "We are good soldiers," says Lt. Col. Marek Olbrycht, commander of the Polish Army's Peacekeepers Training Center in Kielce, in the south of Poland. "We have a lot of experience and the result is that we feel well in the international family, and I am 100 percent sure the international family also feels comfortable with us."
Olbrycht adds that "the peacekeeper has to be the best soldier in the world" because he has to inspire respect from local people without using any weapons.
A UN official at headquarters in New York (who spoke on condition he not be named) agreed that "in Poland they have a tradition of participation in UN operations, so they have established a very good reputation."
At the Kielce center, Polish soldiers and officers -- from privates to generals -- are trained for specific missions immediately before going abroad.
They train for exactly the tasks they will be performing in the field. As Olbrycht jokes, "we prepare them for everything but the climate," which -- in areas like the Golan Heights and south Lebanon -- can be dramatically different from Poland's.
Lt. Col. Marian Kolus, second in command at the Kielce center, explains that "we prepare our soldiers for combat, but for UN soldiers the main task is to see and be seen." The Kielce school aims to allow peacekeepers to hit the ground running at their assigned destination; there's no room for "on-the-job training" once they're out in the field.
All the Poles who go on peacekeeping missions are volunteers, and the army has more volunteers than it can actually send abroad. For conscripts, the incentive is the pay. Instead of the measly 21 dollars per month they make in Poland, they earn 450 dollars a month as peacekeepers.
For officers, the motivation is slightly different, because the experience gained on UN missions can lead to promotions within the Polish army, says Major Marius Saletra, who has served on three foreign missions.
"For me, it's the first one, experience. The second one, a trip all over the world. I know many more new people from other different countries, for example, from South America, from Canada, for example, Nigeria, Ghana, Indonesia. For us this is important because if you have contact with the other nationalities, so you have to know how to behave it you meet him in other situations." Former Polish peacekeepers agree the main challenge for a UN peacekeeper is to be seen as impartial by locals on all sides who have recently fought a war.
Lt. Col. Olbrycht learned this lesson personally when he served in Serb-occupied Krajina in Croatia during the war there.
"You have to have good contacts with this side and with this side. It's incredible. Incredible. Because of the difference of interests of both sides. If you give for instance one piece of bread to this one, you have to give the same kind, the same amount, the same size, and the same piece of bread to the opposite side. For instance if you give a teddy bear to this kid, you have to give the same teddy bear to another one from the Serb side."
In the experience of many Polish soldiers, "peacekeeping" is even a misnomer. In many cases, UN peacekeepers are sent into areas where they are expected to impose, enforce and build peace. But Olbrycht says only the local people can build peace. If they don't want it, he says, nobody can impose peace on them.
Polish soldiers serve today as peackeepers in the Golan Heights and south Lebanon, and with the NATO-led peace force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Polish officers are also UN military observers in a string of countries ranging from Angola and Western Sahara to Chechnya, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Tajikistan.
In such danger zones, peackeepers and military monitors can find war unexpectedly breaking out around them. Major Saletra just returned from a mission in Tajikistan, where a gunfight broke out on the streets of Dushanbe just 200 meters from his apartment when opposition forces decided to launch an assault on the capital.
Lt. Col. Olbrycht found himself in the middle of a war during his time in Serb Krajina in Croatia, when Croatia launched an offensive to regain the territory.
"It was really war, really war with victims, with refugees, with casualties, with blood, with all, with black market, with all agents, all points we have met somewhere around the world as a result of war. Like in Rwanda-Burundi, like in Tajikistan, like also in Croatia."
Along with participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace exercises, Poland's role in peacekeeping operations is good preparation for the country's entry into NATO next year.
By serving abroad, Polish soldiers learn above all how to communicate in English, and also how to deal with soldiers from other armies.
Major Marek Obrusiewicz, in charge of the Polish army's peacekeeping training, says Polish soldiers are learning valuable lessons while serving with SFOR in Bosnia, especially how to do things NATO's way. The armies Poland will have to co-operate with in NATO also have high respect for soldiers and officers with peacekeeping experience. Pentagon (U.S. defense) officials reportedly welcomed the recent appointment of young Polish general, Henryk Szumski as chief of the Polish general staff. The reason the Pentagon brass were encouraged? Szumski has United Nations field experience.