In 1970, the year EUCAP Somalia’s Head of Mission (HoM) Maria-Cristina Stepanescu was born, the world was parted by an Iron Curtain.
The “cold war” between the United States and the then Soviet Union caused for European countries to be positioned in the sphere of influence of one or another (except for the “non-aligned”).
Being Romanian, Maria-Cristina grew up in the so-called “Eastern bloc”. Possibly as Libra being her star sign, Maria-Cristina was inclined since an early age to fight for justice. She recalls that when her babysitter, a teacher, asked her what she wanted to do in life, she replied she wanted to become a prosecutor “to convict bad people”. She was four.
“Standing up for what is right has been a constant in my life. I always loved the idea of justice being made and of being able to do the right thing,” explains Maria-Cristina. This is why as a student she thought she would study Law.
In 1990 Maria-Cristina passed the exams to enrol in the Police Academy.
“I chose to go to the Police Academy because I was attracted by the idea of enforcing the law,” says Maria-Cristina on a mid-May evening in Mogadishu.
She belongs to the first generation of police officers educated in the aftermath of a totalitarian regime. When she graduated in 1994, Romania was moving its first steps as an emerging democracy. This meant for Romania to have open borders, which generated new international relations dynamics.
“My first job was at the Bucharest Police HQ. I was 1st Lieutenant for the Anti-Drug section of the first “Organised Crime Squad” in post-communist Romania, working on international cases,” Maria-Cristina adds. Romanian bilateral relations with European countries on countering organised crime meant she was able to work as a junior officer with international colleagues and study foreign languages.
After her first mission abroad in Germany in 1999, as part of an exchange programme, Maria-Cristina learned about the possibility of joining United Nations (UN) missions in crisis areas. It was shortly after Kosovo war and Romanian Police launched a call for interest asking for police officers to join the peace keeping meeting in the Balkan region. Her drive for doing the right thing continued to motivate her and she ended up working in Pristina (Kosovo’s capital) for the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) as a seconded police officer in 2000.
This was her first international mission.
In Kosovo Maria-Cristina worked on human trafficking which was an endemic problem at the time. Although working flat out, 24/7, at a high cost for her private life, she grew frustrated as she felt more could be done.
“I had a direct interaction with victims of heinous crimes. These have been the most intense years of my life and have affected me emotionally. I was in pain,” explains Maria-Cristina. Many of the victims she helped by sending them to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shelters to be returned home were lured by criminals by the idea of getting a job and end up trapped as sex-slaves. In many cases, Maria-Cristina went beyond her work duties, providing in shelter for victims and arranging for their return home with her own expenses.
Two years in Kosovo were for Maria-Cristina an eye-opener on the impact post crisis-missions can have on people’s lives.
If Kosovo was the lightning bolt, Bosnia, where she went next, working for an EU civilian capacity building mission (EUPM), would be the life-changer.
Romania joined the EU as a member state in 2007, however already in 2006, Maria-Cristina obtained a leadership position at EUPM Bosnia as a seconded expert from a third participating state. She was Head of Planning and Evaluation Department. From that moment, her life and career would be devoted to the EU.
Brussels, the EU capital, would be her next step. Here Maria-Cristina worked on conduct of operations of EU civilian missions deployed in crisis areas. She worked on Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Palestine Missions (EUPOLCOPPS and EUBAM Rafah) and on the planning and operational conduct of EUCAP Nestor, the mission deployed in the Horn of Africa, precursor of EUCAP Somalia.
“I wanted to become a HoM as I wanted to do more and take my contribution to the EU and my country to the next level. Most importantly, I wanted and want to make a difference. My dream came true when I came to Somalia,” says Maria-Cristina. “Compared to 2016 when I arrived in Somalia, I see an increase in women participating” she continues, referring to an earlier meeting with a young Somali lady Lieutenent Colonel who briefed an international audience on security.
During Maria-Cristina Stepanescu’s tenure as HoM, the Mission, previously a Regional one with Headquarters in Djibouti, shifted the centre of gravity to Somalia. She was the first and only Head of Mission to be permanently posted in the Somali capital. Nowadays the Mission has permanent offices in Mogadishu, in Puntland and in Somaliland. Operations expanded also in the port cities of Berbera and Bossaso. The Mission also grew in terms of deployed personnel.
Among the milestones reached by EUCAP Somalia during Maria-Cristina’s time as HoM is the first international overseas engagement on maritime security for Somali officers since 1991. Somali officers mentored by the Mission joined the international maritime exercise Cutlass Express for two years in a row. An exercise sponsored by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF), designed to assess and improve combined maritime law enforcement capacity and promote national and regional security in East Africa. Most importantly, Somalia was the only country joining Cutlass Express with women officers.
This relevant aspect reflects the proven commitment of Maria-Cristina with regards to the promotion of gender mainstreaming in the Mission’s activities. The increased participation of women resonates in in all aspects related to the execution of the mission.
And it is this aspect, about a month and something left before Maria-Cristina’s end of tour of duty as Head of Mission, that Maria-Cristina wishes to leave as her legacy: the enhanced women participation and empowerment in the security sector.
Under her leadership, EUCAP Somalia effectively committed on the promotion of human rights and the holistic implementation of the women, peace and security agenda.
Being a Head of Mission has had and has its challenges: it translates as no personal time. Maria-Cristina working day starts when she gets up in the morning and ends when she goes to bed. In between she manages to exercise together with colleagues and look after her Somali born cats, smart enough creatures awarded a one-way ticket to Europe on the same flight their animal-lover owner will be boarding to return home.
As Maria-Cristina always pursue the next level, when asked what comes next? The reply is to continue her commitment to EU crisis management. One can imagine Maria-Cristina will bid to be the first woman directing EU missions in crisis area. “And why not?” is her answer.