Invasion of the toy peacekeepers

View an exclusive slideshow of Pierre Derks’s toy peacekeepers here. More than 100,000 U.N. peacekeepers are currently deployed around the world, making them the second-largest expeditionary force on earth, after the United States military. Their exploits, including the recent U.N. helicopter assault on Ivoirian forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, are chronicled most days in the ...

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View an exclusive slideshow of Pierre Derks's toy peacekeepers here.

View an exclusive slideshow of Pierre Derks’s toy peacekeepers here.

More than 100,000 U.N. peacekeepers are currently deployed around the world, making them the second-largest expeditionary force on earth, after the United States military. Their exploits, including the recent U.N. helicopter assault on Ivoirian forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, are chronicled most days in the newspapers.

But have you ever actually seen a U.N. blue helmet walking the streets of New York, Paris, London, or any of the other world capitals that love to send them into harm’s way? Ubiquitous in trouble spots like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast or southern Lebanon, they are virtually invisible in the West.

Pierre Derks, a Dutch graphic designer who lives in The Hague, has set out to change that. Derks has also never had personal interaction with a U.N. peacekeeper, but they are the source of one of his country’s greatest national traumas. When Dutch peacekeepers failed to halt a massacre of Muslim men in the so-called U.N. safe area of Srebrenica by Serbian paramilitaries in July 1995, it prompted a period of soul-searching in the Netherlands.

Derks has mined that national obsession for his latest art project. He bought 50,000 toy soldiers, painstakingly painting their helmets, and distributed them to people at a public art show in The Hague. Each toy peacekeeper came with a package, including an instruction to photograph them on the city streets, and upload them into a central database as a way of bringing U.N. peacekeepers more directly into people’s lives.

Derks says his own views on U.N. peacekeepers are “neutral,” and that he doesn’t see them as morally good or bad. But he wondered what people would think if they saw these U.N. blue helmets, armed to the teeth, patrolling European streets.

“In the Netherlands, our soldiers have been sent out into missions abroad. Why not let the Dutch have the same experience of seeing their own streets invaded by peacekeepers,” he said. “How would you feel being confronted by armed blue helmets. What are they doing here? Are they welcome? How do we feel about their presence?”

So far, the project has produced more than 1,000 photographs, and not only from the Netherlands. The plastic toy helmets have shown up in dozens of countries, including a contingent of blue helmets outside the Pompidou museum in Paris, and on patrol in China, Libya, and in New York City’s Central Park. Derks has compiled 500 of them in a book titled “Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest.” [sic]

So far, the toy peacekeepers haven’t made it to an actual U.N. peacekeeping mission, but Derks traveled to New York to snap a few shots of his little blue and green men at U.N. headquarters. He said they have, however, been adopted by a group of Dutch peacekeeping veterans, members of a motorcycle club called the Blue Helmets Motor Group, that served in Lebanon.

“I was really nervous to meet them but they were very enthusiastic about the project and adopted it as their own,” he said. Some are still coping with “post traumatic stress disorder” and the toy peacekeepers, he said, have served, as a kind of therapy. One of the peacekeeping veterans keeps one of his toy peacekeepers in his pocket and brings it out when he wants to talk about the conflict’s trauma.

“If you lost touch with the world because of a psychological blockade, you just put your little buddy on the table,” writes Jos Morren, a veteran advocate associated with the motorcycle group, noting that psychological care for traumatized Dutch peacekeepers has traditionally consisted of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. “Out of the blue those boys were suddenly given a healthy, created form of self medication, through the art of Derks.” 

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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