In Lebanon, UN troops winning hearts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

The Irish are not alone in providing such help, and similar low-profile, high-impact projects for the needy are carried out by Fijian, Finnish, Indian, Ghanaian, Nepalese, Polish and other UN units. Swedes de-mine the region. An Indian unit recently brought a veterinarian - a boon to local shepherds and farmers.

"There are tremendous risks involved, suddenly things can flare up," says Indian Col. P. M. Ahluwalia. Before the Israeli pullout, "you could see the beautiful mountains and blue sea, and the Boom-Boom can start.

"Presently, it is too calm to be very easy, but it has potential to go bad at any time," he says, "Like a cinder buried in ash, it only needs a spark and dry grass - like a Palestinian going to the gate [with Israel] and throwing a stone. It doesn't take an entire nation to start it."

When UNIFIL first arrived in 1978, southern Lebanon was virtually empty. Israel had invaded that year, in a bid to stop cross-border attacks from Palestinian guerrillas. Encouraged by the UN presence, Lebanese villagers - mostly Shiite Muslims - began to return to their homes.

Israel again invaded in 1982, and occupied a 6-mile-wide strip of Lebanese territory - which it called its "security zone."

"We got in between them, and tempered the Israelis," says Mr. Goksel whose press trips at the time were jokingly called Goksel's Resistance Tours. "The parties used the UN when things started to get out of hand. The UN proved itself worthwhile in stopping escalations."

But as UNIFIL looks to its future, troops know that there is more work ahead. For example, as the Israelis withdrew from Saff al-Hawa they took with them all medicine and equipment.

Irish officers often conduct charity events - such as dart tournaments while wearing helmets and flak jackets - to raise money for local projects. They contributed $1,500 of that kitty to replenish hospital stocks, bought the goods in the port city of Tyre, and delivered them - along with a mobile clinic - the same day.

Remarkable as such an act may seem in the realm of UN peacekeeping - failures in Somalia and Rwanda are more often cited as examples - here it rates as common, relative to the daily UNIFIL work of winning hearts and minds.

"From a peacekeeping point of view, it's important to get out among the people, and not be shut away behind high walls or in bunkers," says Declan Carbery, the Irish deputy commander, on his fourth tour. Ireland contributes $24,000 every six months for this humanitarian work. "People have built up friendships with families."

A case in point is Mohamed Fawaz, head of the Tibnin orphanage, which has been supported by the Irish for a decade. Irish troops rent the ground floor of his house for a post.

"Imagine how close we are, after 22 years," says Mr. Fawaz. The Irish pay half staff salaries, have donated toys, laid out a playground, and prisoners in Dublin are making playground equipment to donate. A UN artist painted a bright mural.

"They are considered family, because they have shared our happiness and our sadness," Fawaz says. "If we are in mourning for a funeral, they are the first to be invited. At a wedding, they are the first to come. This is the fact. This is the life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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