In Lebanon, UN troops winning hearts
Fatima Fawaz was not even born when United Nations troops first deployed in southern Lebanon, 22 years ago. But the UN mission is changing her life, and is a rare example of Mideast hope and successful UN peacekeeping.Skip to next paragraph
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Within days, Ms. Fawaz will graduate in law, her college education paid for by Irish peacekeepers who helped her break the legacy of her family's poverty.
Not everyone in southern Lebanon owes so much to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). But many Lebanese say that after living together in the war zone for so long, their gratitude for the peacekeepers runs deep.
Unlike UN missions that have been disparaged from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, UNIFIL has generated a wellspring of gratitude for acts of charity and goodwill.
"I will be the first in all my family to have a degree," Fawaz muses, flashing a bright, confident smile as she thinks about the future. "Maybe I will study to be a judge. I look at the sky every day in anticipation."
Peacekeeping is risky, even for a mission whose mandate has been simply to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli occupation troops. Exactly 235 peacekeepers have died here in the line of duty.
"All the main actors in the Mideast play war in southern Lebanon," says Timur Goksel, UNIFIL veteran and special advisor. "In the middle, from the four corners of the globe, came the UN with small guns, trying to be nice to everyone.... The UN really shared the problem of the people here, which in my eyes created a unique and unbreakable bond with the people. They protected us. UNIFIL could have been in big trouble here, but that bond was the key."
One reason is that UNIFIL often works beyond its mandate, taking on a vital humanitarian role when its troops see fit. They help with everything from rebuilding destroyed houses to providing food to cut-off villages, mobile clinics, water for orphanages, and supplies to schools.
The Israelis pulled out of southern Lebanon last month, and now the UN is beginning to tackle the problem of 150,000 antipersonnel mines laid by all sides. Since 1978, the UN has removed 35,000 mines and other unexploded ordnance.
The 4,600-strong UN forces are to be bolstered by 1,000 troops, and are to deploy to the border with the Lebanese Army any day, once Israel's withdrawal is formally confirmed.
It is in places like the Fawaz household - where father Ali Fawaz earns just $6 a day, and could never afford school fees - the UN impact has been greatest.
For instance, when their home was destroyed by Israeli shelling in 1993, Irish and Norwegian troops in Tibnin joined hands and built them a new house.
Several years later, Fatima Fawaz was the top of her class in school, but had no money to attend college. It was then that the Irish stepped in. Now, besides Fatima, Fawaz's sister is in her second college year, studying physics in Beirut - with all fees, books, and accommodation courtesy of the Irish UN contingent.
Two younger Fawaz brothers - one a whiz in mathematics, another blinded while playing with a mortar fuse - and a younger sister, are also having their educations paid for.
"Whatever Fatima says in thanks, it is not enough," says mother Amina Fawaz. "Without the Irish battalion, there would be no chance of college."