Interim or ad infinitum? Irish army’s 40-year role in Lebanon

Martin Malone, author and former soldier, reflects on Ireland’s Unifil peacekeeping role

 Capt Joe Leeson, a staff officer with the Irish Defence Forces 36th Infantry Group based at Camp Ida in southern Lebanon, meets  Syrian Bedouin children who  live near the Unifil camp in October 2007. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

Capt Joe Leeson, a staff officer with the Irish Defence Forces 36th Infantry Group based at Camp Ida in southern Lebanon, meets Syrian Bedouin children who live near the Unifil camp in October 2007. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

 

Unifil is a strange acronym; it reads as United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Interim derived from the Latin means “Meanwhile; something that is intended to be used until something else is permanently done or established”. A permanent solution, peace in the Middle East, appears a long way off. Ad Infinitum Force might be a truer description of the UN’s role in Lebanon, given its 40-year interim status. This isn’t a denigration of United Nations policy, but rather a reflection on the volatile and headstrong mindsets of the neighbour countries, the Palestinian question, and the ramifications of western interference in Iraq which ignited the current travails throughout the Levant.

Unifil was born after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, with a mandate to help a Lebanese government bring stability to the area. In Ireland’s case, some 32,000 individual tours of duty were completed, and my own contribution tallies five.

All sides involved in the Israeli-Lebanese conflict have at one time or another blamed Unifil for favouring the opposing side. Caught between a rock and a hard place – it is the rock on which more than 250 Unifil soldiers have perished.

Irish troops have been deployed in south Lebanon for 40 years, and 47 lost their lives in the service of peace during that tranche of 23 years, from 1978 to 2001. After a decade’s hiatus, the Irish returned to south Lebanon in 2011 and are currently involved in watching over the Blue Line.

United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeepers mark the 40th anniversary of its presence in southern Lebanon during a ceremony at its headquarters in Naqoura, southern Lebanon on March 19th, 2018. Photograph: Reuters/Ali Hashisho
United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeepers mark the 40th anniversary of its presence in southern Lebanon during a ceremony at its headquarters in Naqoura, southern Lebanon on March 19th, 2018. Photograph: Reuters/Ali Hashisho

In 1985/86, I served with Unifil Military Police Company in Naqoura, Unifil headquarters. I worked in traffic section along with French and Norwegians, collating accident reports filtered in from the battalions (Frenchbatt, Irishbatt, Nepbatt, Ghanbatt, Fijibatt, Norbatt, Finbatt) in the area of operations outside the buffer zone. During that tour of duty I was sent on detachment to Tyre, Lebanon, and stationed in Hassan Burro Barracks.

The coastal road to Beirut wasn’t safe for UN personnel to travel and Tyre itself could be dangerous – a doctor was murdered for carrying out an abortion, the Amal (Hope) was the chief militia then, and they had a military training camp for orphans situated in the Roman hippodrome, with the war children billeted under the spectator rostrums. Every so often Amal personnel would arrive in barracks to collect their weapons from our small armoury – these would have been confiscated at checkpoints so that they couldn’t be used in assaults against the Israeli hilltop positions. These compounds were manned by Israeli soldiers and those of their proxy South Lebanese Army. There was no Blue Line then – that was wishful thinking. It was called the enclave or buffer zone, a territory of about 35 sq kms; an encroachment designed to prevent resistance fighters from sending rockets into northern Israeli towns.

Things were much changed on my return to Lebanon six years later. Amal was no longer the dominant force, replaced by the more radical Hezbollah which formed part of a Lebanese government that had been resuscitated. The gendarmerie were no longer afraid to venture from their stations, new roads had been laid, and family homes destroyed by Israelis I saw being quickly rebuilt.

Ostentatious mansions in the conflict zone left intact during shelling and vicious and sustained gun battles, raised a question – why? Money crosses borders, invisible or otherwise.

Working and living closely with police soldiers from other countries was a huge learning curve. Many of the Scandinavians were civilian policemen and station commanders in their home countries, holding ranks of lieutenant and captain. Occasionally they had difficulty in understanding and handling the military rank structure, whereby some higher ranks felt they were immune to being treated the same as someone of a lower rank. You can imagine the fun I had with a gruff Finnish MP captain who wanted to insert an alco tester into a French officer’s mouth. He listened to my suggestion that we could handle the situation in a better way, before proceeding to test...Or of a Ghanaian cook skinning a donkey for evening dinner, or Nepalese steaming shrimp for breakfast in an adjoining billet, and the reek left on my pristine ready-for-inspection uniform...The shrieks of a pig being readied for slaughter by Fijians making preparations to celebrate their national day.

Different skill-sets, class and rank meant the cauldron within camp always simmered; a rich stew. Having to rely on each other, while on detachment or in a dodgy area or situation, helped to build bridges: from dealing with a fatal traffic incident to the aftermath of a shelling incident and to investigating a mugging in Tel Aviv. Liaising with soldiers from Lebanon and Israel and the civilian police in both countries also gave an insight into their ordinary lives and importantly their views on the UN and the Middle East in general.

Like borders, invisible or removable, soldiers are the same everywhere; it’s only the colour of the uniform that changes.
Martin Malone has written two novels and a memoir concerning Lebanon. After Kafra is being reprinted by 451 Editions this year – it was optioned by RTE TV and deals with PTSD. The Broken Cedar was Impac-nominated and shortlisted for an Irish Fiction Award and concerns a son searching for his father’s remains in Lebanon; the memoir is entitled The Lebanon Diaries.

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