Zhang Yuanyuan, a member of China's first female infantry squad to serve in the UN peacekeeping mission, patrols an area in South Sudan with her male colleagues in 2015. (Photo/CHINA DAILY)
Guns, death, poverty and long patrols across swamps and deserts under a baking sun thousands of kilometers from home is a hard life for any young woman.
Yet this was the path that Zhang Yuanyuan chose. She was 23 when she was deployed in 2015 to Juba, 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 that year, 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 about 4 am when the Chinese convoy encountered a battle between the South Sudan military and anti-government rebels.
"Bullets were zipping over our camp and heads," Zhang said. "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 saw 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 remembers vividly.
"We gave James a piece of chocolate for helping us by running errands and fetching water, but he gave it to his little sister, whom he held in his arms. Our squad leader gave him another piece, hoping he could eat it, but James gave it to someone else. What a nice kid."
Usually, each long-distance patrol takes about seven days, but Zhang and her group took 11 days to complete their first mission to ensure the warring factions 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 dinner time, James held Zhang's hand, smiled to her and said, "Thank you, sister."
"It was at that time that I realized that every hardship is worth it," Zhang said.
When her battalion completed its eight-month deployment and was ready to return home, Zhang wanted to give James some money to help improve his life.
But he refused to accept it. Instead, he carried pumpkins grown by locals and sold them to the Chinese peacekeepers at an extremely low price.
Zhang is now studying at the PLA University of Army Engineering in Beijing, and she often pays attention to the situation facing Chinese peacekeepers, especially those in South Sudan. "I miss them all," she said, 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 her fellow peacekeepers in South Sudan. "My friend told me James had asked how I was doing, and he said he missed me," Zhang said.
"James' brother and father are in the military, but James told me he did not want to fight in wars. He wants to go to school and learn," Zhang said. "It's kids like James that embody the hope for peace in South Sudan."