Lessons learned on both sides as Zaytun heads home

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Lessons learned on both sides as Zaytun heads home


A taekwondo class run by members of the Zaytun Division, troops of the Korean Army deployed to northern Iraq on a peacekeeping mission. The last of the troops returned to Korea last week. Provided by Chang Young-joo

“We Are Friends.”

It was with this motto that the soldiers of Korea’s Zaytun Division set foot in the war-torn regions of northern Iraq in September 2004.

In keeping with their peace-keeping name - Zaytun means “olive” in Arabic - the contingent of the Republic of Korea Army set about building 280 public facilities such as schools, fresh water wells and health clinics. They treated more than 88,000 local patients and gave vocational training to about 2,300 people.

Both sides benefited from the Zaytun mission: the people of northern Iraq from the reconstruction programs and peacekeeping missions, and the Korean troops, who brought back insights and memories.

The JoongAng Daily met with some of the members of the Zaytun Division who returned home on Dec. 19 to find out more about their mission and what they learned about northern Iraq.

Literacy classes bring hope

After a father becomes seriously ill, his daughter buys medicine for him. But because she doesn’t know how to read and write, she can’t make out the proper amount of medicine that her dad should take, or how it should be taken.


Captain Yoo Kyung-hwa poses with children in a village in Irbil, Iraq, during her eight-month tour of duty where she worked as an information officer. Provided by Yoo Kyung-hwa

With her father’s life at stake, will the girl be able to save him?

This was the basis of a skit performed by local students at a recent literacy class ran by the Zaytun Division, part of a program that ran from December 2004 until the Korean troops came home last week.

It was a simple skit that stressed the importance of literacy, but Major Lee Jae-sik of the Zaytun Division cherishes it as one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.

Lee was dispatched to Iraq in May this year as a coordination officer at Zaytun’s Civil Military Coordination Center in Irbil.

“Korean service members did a lot of vocational training, but I’d like to praise the literacy program in particular. The literacy rate in the region is just 40 percent and it’s much lower for women,” Lee said.

The two-hour literacy classes ran four times a week for four years. More than 7,000 people have graduated from the program. In the beginning, Zaytun oversaw everything from hiring the teachers and supervisors to providing the necessary stationery and facilities, but since May 2007 the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government took over hiring.


From top to above: A literacy class ran by the Zaytun Division; a taekwondo class run by Zaytun; and a Kurdistan community leader delivers a plaque of thanks to Major Lee Jae-sik of the Korean Army. Provided by Lee Jae-sik, Chang Young-joo

“I learned how important education is regardless of nationality and ethnicity. It’s amazing how students are eager to learn. It reminded me of night school in Korea in the old days,” Lee said.

Night school has a long history in Korea. The schools emerged during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) because people wanted to get an education free of Japanese interference.

They became even more popular after the Korean War (1950-1953) because people wanted a better life for themselves and their children.

Korea’s experience with war and its aftermath has taught it how to get back on its feet and deal with rebuilding, Lee says.

“I think one of our notable achievements in Iraq was spreading our passion for education and a strong desire for a better life. These ideas stem from the postwar Saemaeul revival movement,” he says, referring to the New Village movement instigated by the late President Park Chung Hee to modernize rural communities in the 1960s and ’70s.

“When I was serving in Korea, I didn’t really feel that I was helping others. But in Irbil, I was proud that although I’m from a different country, I could give help to the people there,” said Lee.

“If I ever return, I hope I’ll see that more schools, libraries and other public facilities have been built.”

The power of cultural exchange

Captain Yoo Kyung-hwa, 27, has mixed memories about her deployment to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan with the Zaytun Division in May of this year. She returned to Korea last week.


“My daughter had just celebrated her first birthday and everyone said I was such a cold-hearted mom to leave her,” Yoo says. “Whenever I missed my baby and my husband, I looked up at the sky, which is so beautiful in Irbil, seemingly filled with many more stars than in Seoul.”

Yoo was part of the eighth batch of Korean troops dispatched to Iraqi Kurdistan, where she worked as an information officer, publicizing the work of the Zaytun troops and liaising with the media in Korea and Iraq.

“There are about 30 media outlets in Irbil. Most of them are small compared to the major media groups in Korea. But they were very interested in what the Zaytun Division was trying to achieve. On average, there were about 600 media reports about Zaytun every year, half of which were in Irbil’s media.”

If Yoo discovered one thing in Iraq, it was the power of cultural exchange, she says. One of her closest local co-workers was Ali Kawes Wali, a 41-year-old interpreter who had assisted the Zaytun troops since they arrived in Iraq in 2004.

Despite the difference in age and background, Yoo says she and Kawes Wali made a strong team. Both were keen to learn the other’s language and culture. Yoo says it was only possible to do her job well because she and Kawes Wali were determined to understand and appreciate each other’s cultural heritage.

“Although I am not a believer in Islam, I respect Islamic culture and beliefs. I think that is one of the reasons why our troops were well-received by the local people,” Yoo says.

As a young mother herself, Yoo fondly remembers her encounters with the children of Irbil. Whenever members of the Zaytun Division completed a Green Angel Operation, code name for reconstruction support work, they had a small celebration with residents.

“The children I met there were so innocent and hopeful despite all they’d been through. When we were leaving, I remember them clinging to our vehicles and giving us the thumbs up,” Yoo says.

“Before being dispatched to Iraq, my job was military education. I taught soldiers how our country developed from the ruins of war with the help of overseas troops and that we should also help other countries in need the same way,” Yoo says.

Back in Korea, she now dreams of one day re-visiting Irbil with her daughter and her husband, once Iraq recovers from the wounds of war and the travel ban on the country is lifted.

Witnessing the democratic process

The year 2005 was an historic one for Iraq. After more than 20 years of dictatorship, the Iraqis participated in three major elections that year - voting for an interim government in January, a constitutional referendum in October and the new National Assembly elections in December.

It was also a meaningful year for the 3,000 members of the Zaytun Division deployed to the region, one of whom was Lieutenant Chang Young-joo, 27, who served as an English-Korean interpreter in Iraq from August 2005 to March 2006.

Chang said he felt he had witnessed history in progress during his eight-month tour of duty. Among the many missions he participated in, he distinctly remembers the elections in October and December when he worked with members of other coalition forces to maintain security for voters.

“Although it’s not my country, it was overwhelming to be there at that moment. These were the first steps of Iraq’s democratization process,” Chang recollected.


A flag-lowering ceremony at the Zaytun Division last week in Irbil. [JoongAng Ilbo]

“Our mission was to help Iraq’s eligible voters cast their votes safely. We made sure the polling stations were clear of threats, tally sheets were delivered and collected safely and the area at the time of the elections was secure.”

As one of the representatives of the troops in Irbil, Chang reported every two hours on the security situation in his area via video conference calls with representatives from other regions in Iraq.

Baby steps toward peace and development they may have been, Chang says, but they were vital steps. He saw the dire conditions that many of the local people had to endure every day and the deprivation that the children suffered.

Each step took the people closer to a better life, he says.

“Living [in Korea], we tend to take for granted things like fresh water. I remember going to villages in Iraq that had no access to potable water. It was heartbreaking to see children drinking from muddy, contaminated sources,” he says.

When Chang heard that Zaytun was finally pulling out of Iraq - there had been a gradual decrease in the size of the division and only 600 troops were left when the troops came home last week - he was saddened.

He feels there is so much more that Zaytun could do there for the Iraqi people.

“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a country reborn, move forward one step every day, and being able to play a part in that historic metamorphosis,” Chang continued.

“The whole question of whether the war in Iraq was the right or not is not that important at this stage. Iraq is in a difficult, transitional phase not just because of the aftermath of the war, but more because of the sectarian conflicts and violence.”

But Chang has some regrets. He would like Korea to have played a bigger role in the mission of coalition forces in Iraq even if it had cost lives.

“As soldiers, we shouldn’t be afraid of death. I wish Korea had participated in actual military operations in other parts of Iraq, instead of just the limited, peace reconstruction role in Irbil.

“It would’ve been a great opportunity to improve our military prowess in the long run.”

By Kim Hyung-eun Staff Reporter [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now