For Irish soldiers in Golan ‘it’s a unique mission; danger lurks around every bend’

The 48th Infantry Group hit ground running on arrival at UN camp

Company commander Comdt Paul Kelly briefing his men before the platoon rotation at UN post 80. “The mission is to ride in a fast, effective and orderly manner,” he tells his section commanders

Company commander Comdt Paul Kelly briefing his men before the platoon rotation at UN post 80. “The mission is to ride in a fast, effective and orderly manner,” he tells his section commanders

 

The dawn sun was doing its best to peek from under low cloud as a chilly early breeze blew across Camp Ziouani. The Mowag armoured personnel carriers of Lieut Ronan O’Brien’s 2 Platoon sat on their hard stand, engines throbbing.

“OK, listen up,” O’Brien called to his men, standing in a row, rifles at the ready, combat vests and body armour on, but now wearing blue helmets of the United Nations, as opposed to Defence Forces military camouflage ones, and sporting UN badges alongside the insignia of the 48th Infantry Group.

“You are authorised to use force,” he told them, reading from their UN rules of engagement, “up to and including deadly force.”

Comdt Paul Kelly, the company commander, who was travelling with the platoon, called the section commanders together. “The mission is to ride in a fast, effective and orderly manner,” he said, before briefing them on what to expect from the Israeli guards at the crossing.

“Any questions?” he asked when finished.

There were none.

Each soldier in the platoon carried with them, tucked into their forearm pocket, a small laminated card on which was detailed their name, the fact that they were part of Undof, the UN observer force on the Golan Heights, and therefore licensed to carry a weapon, and the weapon’s serial number.

Pre-manoeuvre contact between Undof and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) meant the Israelis knew what was going on. More than that, they knew precisely in which Mowag each soldier would be travelling, so that when the cars came to the checkpoint and the Israeli guards looked inside, there would be no surprises.

No one likes surprises here.

And so, just after 7am, they wheeled out of camp, led by Whiskey One, a Toyota jeep driven by a Fijian soldier with logistics support who told everyone to call him, simply, Captain Dan.

“This is what it’s all about,” said O’Brien, delighted to be doing things for real at last after all the training back home.

They sped along the camp’s main internal road, off down south to UN post 80 to relieve 1 Platoon, there since the 48th deployed at noon on April 8th.

“Up Donegal,” shouted gunner Cpl Billy Fannernan as they wheeled out the gate.

Captive audience

Syriaanan

During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, on the plain below Mount Bental, some 1,900 Syrian tanks, Israel in their sights, rolled towards the Golan Heights, along with 1,000 artillery pieces. Watching them from the summit were about 180 Israeli soldiers and 177 Israeli tanks, a guide tells five Americans tourists .

Israel, which yesterday marked its 67th anniversary, won the ensuing battle, underscoring the strategic importance of the string of extinct volcanoes that run, north-south, along the eastern edge of the now annexed Golan overlooking Syria, each but a few hundred metres high. The Israelis call the basalt hills the “line of mounds” and have vowed never to cede them.

From Mount Bental, Lieut Stephen Keane, Mowag reconnaissance commander, knows every road, village (lived-in and abandoned) and every hillock that he can see on the Syrian plain below, home to at least half-a-dozen towns and villages and a difficult-to-quantify number of people. Keane is looking into what the UN calls the area of separation, a buffer zone that is supposed to be demilitarised and patrolled by Undof.

But the zone has ceased to exist in any meaningful sense and is now a small part of a much larger battlefield between the Syrian Armed Forces and a motley collection of armed groups, all of them opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, some of them Islamic extremists with a penchant for beheading.

Thus has the UN become a disinterested observer with a frontline seat to someone else’s war.

UN peacekeeping troops and observers of the 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria have withdrawn from all but a handful of permanent posts retained on the western side of the buffer zone. Much of the central part of the buffer, and all of the southern area, is in the hands of anti-government groups.

Places not damaged in the Yom Kippur War (as they withdrew, the Israelis levelled the village of al-Qunaytirah, which was beside where Camp Ziouani now stands), are struggling to survive the current conflict. Poorly maintained land is home to sheep and goats, tended by wandering shepherds, in contrast to the land on the Israeli side – same soil, same minerals – which is bountiful.

The front in the war has moved to within a few kilometres of the western side of the buffer, which is backed by what the Israelis call their technical fence, a five-metre tall, multi- layered wire mesh barrier dripping with sensors. It runs from Lebanon to Jordan, and parallel with it, the Israelis have also built a berm, an earthen ditch and mound, to make life difficult for any invading tanks.

On the tops of the line of mounds, meanwhile, the IDF have observation and listening posts on every hill. A large one beside Camp Ziouani that bristles with antennae and radar globes is known to UN soldiers as Spy Hill and, they believe, eavesdrops on their every word, though real interest is probably in conversations farther away.

The slopes of the hills, and many but not all of the fields on the flat land immediately around them, are mined. If ever the Syrians come again, the mounds and the mines will funnel their attack into narrow choke points, where they will be annihilated from on high.

But right now, the Israelis are content to watch the mayhem inside Syria, giving help at times – occasional hospital aid to wounded and perhaps other types of assistance also to those factions whom it sees in its interests to assist.

There are here what the acting force commander of Undof, Brig-Gen Tony Hanlon, calls “layers of complexity”. “It’s a unique mission,” he says. “Danger lurks around every bend.”

Reports

The first is that Lieut-Col Prendergast chairs a meeting in his office where his staff officers present verbally their situation reports from the day. It was a quiet mid-week, this week. Comdt Kelly outlined plans for the platoon rotation at UNP80; Ops officer Capt Cormac Brady reported eight insurgents, armed with semi-automatic rifles, seen operating about 1,500 metres from the post; and there was talk of the need to shred draft operational plans for actions that may or may not occur over the next few months.

The rotation at UNP80 was completed without incident, Lieut Conor Hurley bringing his team back safely. Sanitation at the post was a bit grim, said some of the soldiers, and as they left, a few insurgents were seen. Firing was heard but nothing out of the ordinary.

The other evening event involves Fijian soldiers who have choir practice in the camp chapel, built in 1995 by Polish soldiers. Incongruously sweet melodies emerge nightly from burly men who look more like rugby prop forwards than choirboys.

The other day, it was the month’s mind for Cpl David Murray’s mother, who died just as he was completing his mission training in Ireland.

To mark the occasion, the group’s chaplain, Fr Alex Somers, said a special Mass in the church. The Fijians came along and sang Nearer My God To Thee, adding much to an event Cpl Murray is unlikely to forget.

In war, in peacekeeping, and in the most unlikely of places, there can be sublime moments too.

Series concluded

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