Among genuinely great people in South Lebanon

Bishop Trevor Williams writes on his visit, earlier this month, to the 108 Irish/Finnish Battalion in Southern Lebanon

Bishop Trevor Williams writes on his visit, earlier this month, to the 108 Irish/Finnish Battalion in Southern Lebanon

Earlier this month I had the privilege of laying a wreath at the Tibnin Monument in South Lebanon, dedicated to the memory of 47 Irish personnel who died while on peacekeeping duty in Lebanon.

The dignified ceremony with colour party, prayers, a piper playing a lament followed by the last post took place to remember five of the 47 Irish soldiers whose anniversaries are in August. A similar ceremony takes place each month. I was reminded of the cost of keeping peace and how easily the work of the Irish Forces with the United Nations can be taken for granted and go unacknowledged. Standing at that memorial in Tibnin, I felt a sense of pride in the Irish Defence Forces, who have given 55 years of service on peacekeeping operations in some of the most hostile countries of the world.

Monsignor Eoin Thynne, head chaplain of the Irish Defence Forces invited me to join him on a Pastoral Visit to the 108 Irish/Finnish Battalion made up of 332 Irish and 176 Finnish personnel at their base in the At Tiri area of South Lebanon. We had met at several St Patrick’s Day celebrations at Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick where we both enjoyed the generous hospitality of the chaplain, Fr Seamus Madigan. Seamus is now in the Lebanon serving with the 108 Irish Finn Batt as their chaplain.

It was fascinating to discover what peacekeeping involves. The war between Lebanon and Israel has had no agreed conclusion. However there is an agreed “Blue Line” which is there to keep both sides apart. During our stay however, there was an incident where a small group of Israeli soldiers crossed the Blue Line and accidentally were injured by a land mine. Incidents like this can increase the tension.

The UN forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) are not primary actors. They are present to support and assist the Lebanese Armed Forces in the role of peacekeeping. I visited a Irish platoon manning an observation post, yards from the Blue Line. Their task is to report any suspicious activity.

I chatted to a soldier in a pill box observation tower and asked how he would recognise suspicious activity. He said it’s only after weeks of observing normal activity that something ‘unusual’ can be spotted. It’s an extremely difficult job that takes disciplined patience. I was impressed by each soldier I met; their ability, skill and commitment – they were genuinely great people.

There are foot patrols with the Lebanese Army and weekly visits to the markets in Tibnin, Bint, Jabayl and Aytaroun when soldiers can have a chance to mingle with local people and perhaps buy some things from the stalls. This low-profile approach is essential in establishing good relationships in the area, crucial to the work of peace keeping.

It’s clearly understood that driving around in heavy armoured vehicles can be intimidating and alienating while it is necessary at times. Over the years, because of this approach, the Irish Army have won a very good reputation with the locals. As we travelled around people waved and smiled at us.

What has also helped is the humanitarian assistance the Irish Forces have given to local villages, such as water storage, street lighting and support for their schools. As we have learnt in Northern Ireland, much of peacekeeping is about winning hearts and minds.

The Commanding Officer is Lieutenant Colonel Anthony McKenna. He insisted that other welfare agencies could not replace the chaplaincy. This was clear at the Tibnin Monument, and at the Mass I attended at the At Tiri base where soldiers packed into the chapel and each one lit a candle as a prayer.

But Seamus’s great strength is his great sense in the easy way he relates to people, no matter what their rank - and his great sense of humour! As we walked around he greeted every soldier by name, he is always available for chat, or a more serious conversation.

As a Forces chaplain, Seamus assumes the rank of the person he is talking to. This unique position in what is a highly structured organisation enables the chaplain to provide real pastoral support.

The Irish Forces may not solve the problems in Lebanon. What they are doing is creating a safe space in which local political and religious leaders can move beyond past and present hostilities and create a peaceful future. We should keep them in our prayers.