"If any of our lot had had a gun," said the British police sergeant, "he would have shot the guy who was threatening me. And then they would have shot back, and the whole situation could have have got out of control. Being unarmed is difficult, but it also gives you protection."
The proliferation of peacekeeping and civil assistance missions around the world has led to British policemen being plucked from the beat in London or Liverpool and sent at short notice to conflict spots including Bosnia, Kosovo and Nigeria as well as East Timor. Last week the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced that an elite police squad was to be formed and kept on standby for such missions.
Policemen, Mr Cook said at the UN General Assembly in New York, are needed to keep civil order after peacekeeping troops have moved in to quell violence. This is a lesson learned in places such as Kosovo, where experience has shown that soldiers, as a rule, make poor policemen. A Nato military force assembled for the purpose of taking on the Serbian army found itself entering unopposed into a country in which law and order had completely broken down. Many of the peacekeeping troops, however, took the approach that revenge attacks by Albanians on Serbs were a civilian matter which had nothing to do with them; as long as no one was shooting at K-For soldiers, peace was being preserved.
Among the first forces to arrive in Kosovo were the British Parachute Regiment, elite troops trained for maximum aggression and enormous physical risks on the front line of battle. They fired on a car full of young Albanian men who had been shooting in the air during a night of celebration in Pristina, killing several, an incident which threatened to undermine the fragile trust which had been built up between K-For and the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Policing requires a far more subtle and patient approach. Paul Morrison, a 39-year-old Metropolitan Police constable, spent a year in Bosnia, where for a time he was in charge of specialist police training, including dogs and riot police, with a staff of 53. "It was very intensive work and a very slow process of change," he said, "but there was an awful lot of satisfaction in it. We worked with the local police to help them make the transition from a traumatised and poverty-stricken group working in appalling conditions to a professional force. We were trying to integrate different ethnic forces who had been at war with one another.
"It also involved introducing democratic policing to a country that has seen police as agents of the state. Part of our role was to help them understand that democracy brings problems - it's not an automatic route to wealth."
Constable Dave Pape, 47, from Lincolnshire, has served both in Bosnia and during the independence referendum in East Timor. There, he said: "Our mandate was only to advise and observe - we had no investigative powers. This, and the fact that there were so few of us, meant that our role was very limited." Holed up in their Dili compound, the unarmed police sent to East Timor during the referendum were dependent on the protection of the Indonesian armed forces - the very organisation which was arming and organising the militia.
Constable Morrison believes the proposed new "rapid reaction" squad will enhance Britain's image abroad, although British policemen, proud of their position as one of the world's last unarmed forces, will find that their attitudes are not always shared by international colleagues.
When a convoy of UN workers evacuating the East Timorese town of Liquisa was fired upon by Indonesian policemen, an unarmed US policeman narrowly escaped death after being hit by three bullets. "If it comes to an armed mission, count me in," he told friends later. "I have a few outstanding issues to settle."Reuse content