Life on the edge: A peacekeeper looks back

I had just started patrolling that morning with my Finnish colleague and our female liaison assistant when we were suddenly ordered to return to our base near Markaba.

May 6, 2019 23:05
Life on the edge: A peacekeeper looks back

Kevin McDonald at the Central African Republic . (photo credit: Courtesy)

I enlisted in the Irish Army in 1983 as a private soldier and was deployed to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in 1984. This was a tense time for the Irish troops, as the IDF was withdrawing from most parts of the country that it had occupied in the 1982 invasion.

I was stationed in the villages of Haris and Yatar, and while we had a fairly good relationship with the IDF anytime we encountered it, the relationship with its local militias was somewhat more difficult.

These militias were termed LAUIs (Locals Armed and Uniformed by the Israelis) in UN parlance and were generally a very ill-disciplined bunch of local thugs. Exchanges of fire between these groups and the Irish were frequent, and this was my first introduction to UN peacekeeping.

With the Israeli establishment of the security zone as a sort of a buffer between northern Israel and southern Lebanon (termed the Israeli-Controlled Area in UN parlance), the LAUIs were later renamed the South Lebanese Army, but as the UN did not want to give them the status of a proper army, they were referred to by the UN as the De Facto Forces. The change in name did not do much to change their attitude, and up to his killing by Hezbollah in 2000, inside the ICA, one of their more notorious leaders was an individual called Akel Hashem, and he in particular was known to be behind many attacks against Irish peacekeepers.
I returned to Lebanon in 1993 as a newly commissioned officer, and this time I was stationed in the village of Baraachit. This was a deadly area for Irish peacekeepers. In 1986 an Irish soldier was killed by gunfire from an IDF/DFF position outside the village. In 1987 an Irish soldier was killed when an IDF tank from the same position fired two fléchette  tank shells into his UN post. In 1989 three Irish soldiers were killed in a complex attack, which used a land mine and a series of linked 155 mm. artillery shells, by a local armed group (presumably Hezbollah). In 1992 another Irish soldier was killed during an exchange of fire between the Irish peacekeepers and Hezbollah. A total of 48 Irish soldiers have lost their lives in Lebanon between the initial deployment in 1978 and 2000, when Ireland completed its first deployment to UNIFIL after the verification of the Israeli withdrawal. Ireland subsequently sent its peacekeeping soldiers back to Lebanon after the end of the 2006 war.

During my deployment in 1993, as a result of quite a number of attacks between Hezbollah and the IDF/DFF, Israel launched Operation Accountability, a seven-day aerial and ground bombardment of Lebanon designed to directly attack Hezbollah, to make it difficult for Hezbollah to operate in southern Lebanon, and to create a refugee problem in the hopes of pressuring the Lebanese government to intervene against Hezbollah. This would, of course, be a similar tactic in 1996 and 2006.

During this seven-day war, my position in Baraachit received over 800 Firings Close (– a UN definition of the proximity of incoming lethal fire. For example, small arms fire is regarded as a Firing Close if it is 50 meters or less from your position; artillery landing less than 500 meters is regarded as a Firing Close, and for aerial bombs it is 1,000 meters). This was my first time being under sustained fire, and what I found remarkable was the ability of the brain to become attuned to reacting normally in what was for me a very abnormal situation. I was on the roof of our position one day, taking grid references of the various impacts in the village, when an incoming artillery shell ricocheted from where it hit the village, traveled approximately 400 meters and crashed through the roof of my accommodation, before eventually landing beside our canteen. This, bizarrely, at the time, seemed to be a completely normal occurrence.

I returned to Lebanon in 1996 toward the end of another seven-day war, Operation Grapes of Wrath. It was during this war that 106 Lebanese civilians taking shelter in the battalion HQ of the Fijians serving with UNIFIL were killed, after a total of 13 155mm. artillery shells (including air burst shells) were fired into the UN compound by the IDF. This was apparently done as a result of Hezbollah firing mortar rounds at the IDF from very near the UN position. Baraachit, where I was again based, was as dangerous as it had been previously, and we received numerous Firings Close throughout our six-month deployment.

IN 2005 I deployed on a two-year mission as an unarmed military observer with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). I spent nearly a year living in Tiberias with my family and working along the Area of Separation between the IDF and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. This was a far cry from south Lebanon, and it gave me a chance to work in and explore Syria as well.

In early 2006 I was transferred, with my family, to Lebanon and, as could be expected, the operational pace was somewhat different. At that time Lebanon was undergoing a resurgence in tourism and the country was flourishing.

We lived in the southern city of Tyre, and my children, who were aged five and seven, went to a local English-speaking Arab school. Life was good, and we visited Beirut, Damascus and Amman, when I got leave.

I would normally spend seven days with four other colleagues in our Patrol Base (PB) near the village of Markaba, overlooking northern Israel.

The only two flash points in southern Lebanon at that time were the divided village of Ghajar (an Alawite-Arab village that had been Syrian, and was included in the land Israel captured from Syria in 1967) and the Shaba Farms.

Ghajar epitomizes the difficulties with the Blue Line (the demarcation line that was drawn up between the UN, Israel and Lebanon to confirm the IDF withdrawal in 2000). While, for the most part, both countries are in agreement, there are some anomalies, such as Ghajar, where the Blue Line runs through the middle of the village. As the village expanded over the decades, it migrated northward into Lebanon; hence today’s difficulties.

Whether the area of the Shaba Farms was Lebanese or Syrian before the 1967 war is a matter of dispute.

Both these flash points had seen kinetic exchanges between Hezbollah and the IDF in the years leading up to 2006. After a Hezbollah attack against an IDF position in January 2005, two UN unarmed military observers went to investigate, and one officer was killed, after a fléchette  tank round was fired at them from an IDF Merkava tank.

However, in 2006, the rest of southern Lebanon was relatively quiet and calm, until the morning of 12 July, when a large Hezbollah group crossed the Technical Fence near the Israeli village of Zar’it and attacked an IDF patrol, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two. A further four IDF soldiers were killed when a Merkava that had gone through the Technical Fence to set up an over-watch position was blown up, and in the attempt to bring it back into Israel, a further IDF soldier was killed. Needless to say, the Israeli reaction was swift and furious, as all areas of Lebanon were shelled, especially all Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon.

I had just started patrolling that morning with my Finnish colleague and our female liaison assistant when we were suddenly ordered to return to our base near Markaba. As we arrived at the base, we had to dodge incoming small arms fire from the nearest IDF position, which was firing intently into southern Lebanon.

Due to the high kinetic activity in and around our PB and indeed the entire region, it would be nearly two weeks before we managed to get our assistant safely back to her village of Deir Mimas. Slowly, we managed to piece together what had started this war and realized that this would not end in a few days like previous operations.

Life on the Patrol Base revolved around recording the locations of all outgoing and incoming fire (the UN views all fire into Lebanon as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty, and likewise all Hezbollah fire into Israel is equally a violation of Israel’s sovereignty).

I had some experience of being under fire, so it was not all that new for me, but it was a completely different experience to be able to look west, in the direction of the city of Tyre, where my wife and two kids were, and see bombs and naval shells landing there.

The UN eventually made the decision to evacuate all the UN dependents from Tyre. Whereas all of the other military observers who had family in Tyre managed to get down there to say good-bye, the village of Markaba, where I was stationed, was under some intense bombardment, which meant I was unable to leave the base. So when my wife and two small kids were getting into the lifeboat that would bring them out to a waiting ship, I rang her and wished her Godspeed, which is not the ideal way to finish what was then officially described by the UN as a family mission.

Shortly before they were evacuated, one of our convoys came under fire, and we had one of our military observers seriously wounded. She was evacuated on the same ship as my family. Two days later, during an exchange of fire between Hezbollah and the IDF in Maroun al-Ras, another colleague was seriously wounded. Thankfully, in close liaison with the IDF, his colleagues put him into an armored Land Cruiser and followed tracks left by some Merkava tanks all the way into Israel, where an IAF helicopter flew him to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. He thankfully survived but is now in a wheelchair.

My colleagues in Patrol Base El-Khiam were not so fortunate. On July 25, three distinct waves of attacks by air and artillery targeted the area around their base and also targeted the base itself. Over an eight-hour period, the attacks intensified, despite the strongest condemnation and appeals to desist from UNIFIL HQ in Lebanon, UNTSO HQ in Jerusalem and UN HQ in New York. We lost contact with the base in the evening, and when a UNIFIL patrol managed to make its way through shelling to the base, it discovered the bodies of three out of the four unarmed military observers that had been deployed there. The building itself had received a direct hit from at least one JDAM precision-guided missile fired by the IAF.

The next day I was tasked to join a patrol to commence the identification of our three colleagues. This was one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do, and like for any other soldier in the same position, it is a memory that is seared into your brain and will never leave. The first body was instantly identifiable, the second I identified by feeling the remains of a mustache on what remained of my friend’s head, and the third body had no legs, no arms and no head. We would have to wait for DNA to complete the identification.

It took another day before we could begin the dangerous process of arranging to transfer the remains of our three colleagues through the Technical Fence to UN colleagues from Jerusalem. This was eventually completed while artillery screamed in one direction and Katyusha rockets in the other. The final part of the transfer was to make three separate movements through an area that had not been cleared of mines since 2000, before we eventually managed to get all three colleagues into UN ambulances. An IDF company was deployed with some senior IDF officers to assist.

Once the bodies were transferred, I ordered all UN colleagues into a line, while we had a minute of silence in honor of our fallen colleagues. I was really impressed when the senior IDF officer present also stood to attention. Having a minute’s silence in the middle of the noise of artillery and jets was just another surreal moment in an increasingly surreal war.

In three days, Observer Group Lebanon had lost over 10% of its strength of unarmed observers and 50% of its Patrol Bases, so all remaining observers were ordered to move to UNIFIL HQ in Nakoura. What was normally a two-hour journey took over three days.

We spent the remainder of the war patrolling into Tyre to assess bomb damage and trying to come to terms with the loss of our colleagues. It would be during the ceasefire that we would find sufficient remains of our fourth colleague to commence DNA tests.

Six weeks after the war, I was transferred to UNTSO HQ in Jerusalem for my remaining six months, which was initially difficult for me, but Jerusalem is such a magnificent place to live that I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

MY NEXT overseas deployment was to Chad as a company commander in 2010. This was a step up from peacekeeping to peace enforcement and was full-on in every sense of the word. My patrols in the bush varied from one to four days and could move from boring to exciting in a matter of minutes.

One memorable aspect of this deployment was the fact that I had to get my appendix removed in a tented hospital in Abeche. I had felt ill the night before, was medevaced by helicopter the next morning, and had my appendix removed instantly on arrival. Being discharged the following day was a bit of a surprise, but that is army life.

In 2012 I was deployed to Western Sahara as a military observer. The mission’s explicit aim was to oversee the introduction of a referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

This mission also allowed me to develop one of my other passions – archaeology. Previously, I had found evidence of the prehistoric Yarmukian culture (approx. 5500 BCE) on the Golan, and also evidence of prehistoric activity in Chad, but in Western Sahara, which is the least densely populated place in Africa, I found evidence of prehistoric activity almost every day, in the form of flint arrowheads and scrapers, and also several burial mounds.

Africa seemed to continue to have a hold on me, and I was deployed to Mali in 2013 as part of the European Union Training Mission. At that stage the conflict had not yet reached the bloody heights of today, where in the last few weeks over 12 peacekeepers have been killed by Islamic extremists.

IN 2014 I was asked to return to the Middle East as an unarmed military observer, and I spent a year living once again in Tyre and a further year living once more in Jerusalem.

Lebanon was as peaceful as I had ever known it, and I managed to become an unofficial tour guide to the Phoenician, Roman and Crusader ruins in Tyre. Nearly every weekend I was off duty, I would bring people around places like the Hippodrome (second-largest Roman chariot racing arena in the world) and try to bring these places to life.

While deployed in Lebanon, I managed keep up with my habit of discovering new archaeological finds. One day, I was on a patrol near the village of Maroun al-Ras and observed an unusual group of rocks, which on closer inspection turned out to be a prehistoric megalithic tomb. This was a unique and important find, as there was no known record of megalithic tombs in south Lebanon, despite their presence nearby in northern Israel and on the Golan Heights.

In late 2015 I was transferred to UNTSO HQ in Jerusalem, and with a background in archaeology, what better place is there to live and work?

RETURNING TO Ireland in late 2016, I knew that as a commandant (major) I would have to retire on age grounds once I reached 56 years, so I was kept busy applying for work with the UN as a civilian, as the thought of taking up golf did not appeal to me.

I was fortunate to be offered a three-month contract with the UN mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) as chief close protection coordinator. I was then extended for a further 21 months as the regional security officer in Sector East, based in the city of Bria.

Nothing in my previous UN experience had prepared me for the scale of violence and ethnic hatred that was visible in Bria. Life in many cases was nasty, brutal and short, and just outside my base was a camp of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) numbering up to 41,500 people. Every day in CAR was different, and you could go from an idyllic, calm sunny day to absolute mayhem, as some of the many armed groups would decide to attack each other.

In January 2019, I completed my two-year contract with MINUSCA, and as a going-away gift from CAR I got my third dose of malaria. Nothing is easy in Africa!

LOOKING BACK at the previous 34 years, I have come to realize that evil exists in every society, whether so-called modern societies or primitive societies, but alongside evil I also have recognized that humanity and empathy can go a long way to cast a thin sliver of light into a dark space, and as long as there are more people willing to cast that sliver, as opposed to those trying to envelop the space in darkness, then ultimately good will prevail.

The writer is a retired senior officer with the Irish Defence Forces. He served for over 34 years and was deployed overseas on UN peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions and European Union missions. Since his initial deployment in 1984, he served in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Chad, Western Sahara and Mali, before retiring in 2016. In 2017 he undertook a two-year mission as a regional security officer in one of the more demanding UN missions in the Central Africa Republic.

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