Member of China's first female 'blue helmet' infantry squad bonded with locals while in South Sudan
Guns, deaths, poverty and long patrols across foreign swamps and deserts under the baking sun, thousands of kilometers from home, should not be the daily life of a young woman.
Yet this was the life that Zhang Yuanyuan chose. She was 23 when she deployed in 2015 to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, as part of China's first female infantry squad to serve in a United Nations peacekeeping mission. The squad had 13 members.
On Oct 2, 2015, Zhang went on her first long-distance patrol in an armored vehicle. The first two nights were quiet, but gunshots and flares broke the peace on the third night at around 4 am. The Chinese convoy had encountered a battle between the South Sudan military and anti-government rebels.
"Bullets were zipping above our camp and heads," Zhang says. "I didn't feel scared for my life, nor unusually brave and heroic - just really nervous, and a little bit excited."
The gunshots continued for three days, and Zhang's anxiety peaked when the convoy commander ordered everyone to load their weapons. It was then that Zhang spotted a South Sudanese man crawling toward the Chinese camp with a bullet wound to one of his feet.
By then, more than 700 refugees had come to the camp for safety, including a small boy named James, whom Zhang still remembers to this day.
"We gave James a piece of chocolate for helping us run errands and fetch water, but he gave it to his little sister, whom he held in his arms," Zhang says. "Our squad leader gave him another one, hoping he could eat it, but James gave it to someone else. What a nice kid."
Usually, each long-distance patrol takes around seven days, but Zhang and her group took 11 days to complete their first mission to make sure the combatants had ceased fire and the locals were safe.
The Chinese peacekeepers' rations were quickly depleted, but they salvaged what little they had to make rice porridge to help the refugees. At dinnertime, James held Zhang's hand, smiled to her and said, "Thank you, sister."
"It was at that time that I realized: Every hardship is worth it," Zhang says.
When her battalion finished its eight-month deployment and was ready to return home, Zhang wanted to give James a bit of money to help improve his life.
But James refused to accept the money. Instead, he carried pumpkins grown by the locals and traded them to the Chinese "blue helmets" at an extremely low price.
Zhang is now studying at the PLA University of Army Engineering, and she often pays attention to the situation of the Chinese peacekeepers, especially those in South Sudan. "I miss them all," Zhang says, adding that she still remembers educating the locals about sanitation and teaching children in refugee camps kung fu and painting.
Last year, Zhang received a photo of James with one of Zhang's fellow peacekeepers in South Sudan. "My friend told me James asked how I am doing, and he said he missed me," Zhang said.
"James' brother and father are in the government military, but James told me he did not wish to fight in wars; he wants to go to school and learn," Zhang says. "It is kids like James that embody the future hope of a peaceful South Sudan."
Zhang asked her colleague to carry a message to James, saying, "I will gladly visit you during time of peace. But if you ever need me, I would rush back to help without any hesitation."