Lebanon: On the big Irish ball

Mark Brennock with the Irish troops in Lebanon

EIGHT AM IN TIBNIN AND THE SOUND OF THE PIPE BAND playing "Twenty Men from Dublin Town'. echoed through the prefabricated billets of Camp Shamrock, making sleep impossible for those who had not yet emerged from under the mosquito nets.

There had been drinking the night before. The canteen opens for an hour and a half every night between eight and nine-thirty. About thirty people were in the canteen, sittting around tables and drinking the standard beer, Alrnaza, out of cans. Michael Jackson played from the tape recorder in the corner, bought from one of the many local traders. Because the bar is only open for an hour and a half, some soldiers have developed the tendency to drink their cans at an alarming rate. At ten o'clock an officer came in to clear everyone out. Some of the lads muttered things under their breath but they all obeyed orders.

Back in the billets the Privates and NCOs were sitting around a table when someone from another billet came in looking very angry. Somebody had stolen his thirteen cans of beer, and he was accusing one of the lads of stealing them. They began to shout at each other.

The soldier who lost his beer went away again, and someone said "we only got twelve" The troops agreed that they should give him the money for his cans, and someone was nominated to do this the next day.

"The worst thing about drinking out here," said one man, "is getting up in the morning. The heat would kill you,"

Now it was morning, people were moving about the :RS gertiag hor. At the front gate the four soldiers who had been on guard the previous 24 hours lined up, checled that ther guns were empty and moved off, to be replaced by another four. The white UN jeeps inside the gate, waiting to transport the officers to the morning briefing at HQ.

The Irish troops joined the UNIFIL force in South Lebanon in May of 1987, at the invitation of the Lebanese government. Their arrival followed an Israeli invasion of and withdrawal from the are which was designed, according to the Israelis to flush out PLO fighters who were using South Lebanon from which to attack Israel. The UNIFIL role was to keep peace in the area. They cannot, however, enforce peace, and can only fire weapons in selffdefence.

Since then, Irish troops have been fired upon by all sides in the area, including the Israeli army. Eighteen Irish troops have been killed, some in action and others in accidents. The balance of power in the area has been constantly channging in the last six years. The PLO are gone, but the Israelis are back. The Christian militia is now' being trained by the Israeli Army and styling itself as the "South Lebanese Army". This "Army" is not recognised by the Lebanese government and, therefore, not by UNIFIL. It gets much of its funding by a system of local "taxation" which amounts to a crude form of extortion.

Ten different nations are participating in UNIFIL.

There are 736 Irish troops there, who spend six months in the 88 square kilometres of the Irish Area of Operations before going home, to be replaced by a new battalion. The Irish Army is well used to UN peacekeeping work, having served in the Congo for four years and in Cyprus for ten.

THE OFFICERS LEAP OUT OF THEIR SEATS TO ATTENTION as the commanding officer of the 55th Irish Battalion walks into the room. The duty officer, for the previous day sits behind a desk at the top of the room with a large map of the Irish Area of Operations (AO) behind him, with different coloured markers on it. The officers sit down again as the duty officer begins his account of the events in the Irish AO for the previous 24 hours.

One. The Israelis fired two rounds from their position at IDF house down into the valley below - probably just clearing their weapons - and there were two overflights by Israeli planes.

Two. Lauis (locals, armed and uniformed by the Israelis) fired two shots in the air and twelve on the ground from one of their two positions, and one into the valley below from their other position, all for no apparent reason.

Three. One Irishbatt truck was stopped for some time at a DFF (De Facto Forces - Christian Militia) checkpoint, before being allowed through.

Four. The Laui position at Brashit was attacked during the night, with 60 rounds fired at it, and a hundred fired back. "It all seemed to end at 6.l0am when the Lauis went off for a cup of tea."

The blue cravatted officers listen attentively as the previous day's shooting incidents are read out. There is zothing unusual. The last item raises self-satisfied grins àthe price of petrol had gone up in Dublin.

White UN jeeps bump along potholed roads and greennclad soldiers stop and search cars as the daily routine of Irishbatt begins. Most mornings some part of the landline communications system has to be repaired. The cables laid along the side of the road are regularly cut by locals, who use them to pirate electricity into their homes or to make reins for their donkeys.

Soldiers sit with binoculars on rooftops of houses at isolated vantage points in the Irish AD and report on anyything unusual. Their reports are usually of overflights of Israeli planes, or the sound of gunfire. At the checkpoints. cars are stopped one at a time, while ill cards are checked and boots opened. Most of the Irish know how to ask the routine set of questions in Arabic. They seem to understand the answers.

The local children wave and shout "hello" as the Irish vehicles pass along the dusty roads through the villages. The Irish have a self imposed speed limit of 25mph. The thus far harmonious relations with the locals could be severely shaken by just one incident involving a fast moving Irish jeep and a local child.

Much of the manpower is spent on the maintenance of the Irish operation. Mechanics work in an area known as "The Pits" maintaining and repairing the UN vehicles, which get a rough battering on the appalling roads. For more serious vehicular casualties there is a Norwegian maintenance company beside Camp Shamrock.

The provision of food and water is also a' major operaation. Several times a day, the water truck must travel 25 kilometres to get water to service the main camp and the smaller outposts. Cooks work a full day providing food for the officers and men. In A company at Haddatah, the offiicers sometimes participate by barbecuing their own food on the balcony.

THE OLD WOMAN WITH THE KIDNEY INFECTION IN THE WAITTing room is calling for Allah. Three members of her family gather around, torn between comforting her and liaising with the Irish medical orderly. The jamjars in the office contain assorted snakes and tarantulas, so that anyone coming in with a bite can identify the assailant. The cast from MASH smiles down from a poster on the wall as well they might.

The regimental aid post is the busiest part of Camp Shamrock. At 7.30 in the morning locals start to queue outside the gate and are given numbers to wait in the queue. Some patients arrive with a large entourage offamily SId friends, who keen and wail while the sick person is aeing seen to. On a bad morning the waiting room is filled ~h howling people.

The dentist, Mary Keating needs only two words of Arabic, which sound like Rasras and Ecla. Most of the locals coming in want a rasras (filling) but they usually leave their visit to the dentist so late that an ecla (extraction) is required. People leave it late before coming to the doctor too. Sometimes they have applied toothpaste to burns and ground coffee to wounds before they come for medical attention. Many villagers who come to see the docctor go next door to see the dentist before they leave, in order to get value from their visit to Camp Shamrock.

The locals seem to prefer the Irish medical treatment to the local treatment at Tibnin hospital. It may be that they prefer the Irish medics, it may be because it's free at Camp Shamrock.

A few of the villagers specialise in acting as go betweens between the locals and the Irish medics. They regularly arrive up with one or more people in tow, dramatically explain the plight of their clients, and escort them back home again when they are finished. These intermediaries may be merely doing a good turn for their friends - gratis - but one is known as the ten percent man.

"On the ball Irish!" The soldier at the Fijian checkpoint jerks himself to attention, smacks his rifle in salute and flashes his white teeth before shouting his greeting as the Irish jeep goes by. Another black face appears at the win· dow of the checkpoint and roars: "On the big Irish ball!"

Driving from the Israeli border to Tibnin involves passing through the Fiji controlled UN area. The Fijians have picked up the Irish habit of saying "on the ball" and invariably shout some variation of it as the Irish go by. They don't know what it means but they still say it in thick Fijian accents. Some of them think it has something to do with football and they draw imaginary footballs in the air as the Irish pass. The Irish try to confuse them by drawing hexaagonal shapes in the air.

But if you drive from the Israeli border to Tibnin, the Fijians are the least of the problems. One must also pass through an area known as the enclave, a narrow strip of land between the Israeli border and the UN area. Here the natives have taken to firing .at Israeli patrols and detonating roadside bombs beside Israeli vehicles. On the road Lebaanese vehicles stay 100 yards behind Israeli jeeps, and UN vehicles only travel in pairs. Some Irish UN drivers tell of Israeli vehicles trying to manoeuvre themselves into the middle of UN convoys for safety. The UN drivers don't like that sort of thing.

The Irish are playing a local soccer team - Haris - in a friendly match. The pitch is set deep in a valley with high banks of rock on each side. The sun is getting low in the sky, which casts a shadow over the pitch making it more comfortable for the players to run around.

Up in the rocks and around the pitch sit around 50 locals. The referee is a local as well.

An Irish player shouts handball and the referee wants to send him off. It was handball - the ball had clearly been handled by one of the local players - but the local referee wants to send off the Irish player. The referee finally channges his mind and the Irish player stays on. "Fair play to you ref", the Irishman says, not without a trace of irony.

The locals take their soccer very seriously. They have matching blue shirts with "Haris" emblazoned across them. The local referee bows to the will of the spectators, who have been known to throw stones at particularly good Irish players. In the previous game the Irish had been winning in the end but the referee extended the game for fifteen minutes until the local team scored. The referee slept easily in his bed that night.

"I hear him, he say fucking ref, he go off." The friendly match is getting less friendly and an Irish player is being sent off. The Irishman doesn't think he has done anything wrong and he doesn't want to go off. The Irish are winning, :De crowd is getting frustrated and the referee is getting worried. An officer indicates that the player should go off and the martyr for community relations goes to the sideline.

"Sure we have to let them win. It's their pitch and their Dill. "

There's no disco in Dibil. Soldiers on their first trip to South Lebanon are told that there is, that the tiny village of Dibil is the place to be. But it's not. Dibil is in the Chrisstian controlled enclave, and a UN soldier there would be as popular as a black at a disco in Cape Town.

COMMANDANT PIERCE McCORLY IS FRANTICALLY CRAWLING across the floor of the canteen in Reece company headquarrters at Al Yatun. The room is smoky and crowded and the tables are covered with beer cans. Everyone thinks it's very funny. Tonight there is an inter company quiz between Reece company and C company and it's the charades round.

Soldiers who had been concentrating more on the 50 cent cans of Almaza start to pay attention to the quiz. People nudge each other and point out the senior officer on the hard dusty floor. The laughter gets louder. The two teams sit in front of the cartoon covered walls at the top of the room facing down towards the people at the bar.

Pierce McCorly is trying to mime the two worded name of a book. He has done very well so far. The first word is animal and the second rhymes with arm.

Pierce McCorly is trying to mime the second word. He raises his legs in the air, he walks up and down the room with an imaginary plough and puts his fingers to his head and wiggles them, but nobody thought that he looked like a farm and C Company won.

Finding amusement for the 648 Irish troops in a barren and desolate place such as South Lebanon is difficult. Many soccer, table tennis, volleyball and quiz competitions are organised to keep the men occupied, but for those who are thinking of home, the competitions are a poor substitute.

Shaper and Joe and some of the lads are lying out in the sun on top of a bunker - an activity known as swarming. It's two in the afternoon, the hottest time of the day, but on top of the bunker the breeze makes the heat bearable.

Down on the balcony of the officers mess the officers are swarming as well. There is an unofficial siesta between 12 noon and 3 in the afternoon, during which most of the troops plaster themselves with suntan oil and top up their suntans. There were a lot of sore people in the first two weeks, but by now most of the troops are used to the sun.

On the winter tour the status symbol of a tan is harder to get. After the winter rain, soldiers grab every minute of spare time to lie in the sun so that they'll impress the folks at home when they get back.

A medical orderly approaches the lads. "Anyone here A positive?" Tibnin hospital needs some blood. A donor is found and hurried off to give his blood. During the night there was a 'medevac' from the Irish AO to Tyre hospital. A local woman had gynaecological complications, but havving been driven to Tyre hospital by the UN she gave birth to a baby girl. Some of the troops think it was twins, others swear it was triplets.

We sit on the small whitewashed rocks that border the pathways between the billets. The lads complain about the beer. They've been promised for the last few years that Guinness would be brought out, but there's still no sign of it coming. They talk about the hard work, the heat, the mosquitoes.

At this time of the afternoon the soldiers wear nothing but a pair of shorts. They have very dark suntans and they're proud of them. Someone talks about the post, and how a person's morale is transformed when they get a letter from home. But it takes a week for a letter to get from Ireland, and another week for a reply to get back, "so if the wife wants to know something it takes two weeks before you can tell her and by then it's out of date. You're 3000 miles away from Ireland when you come out here, and it gets further and further as the six months go by."

They say that during the winter South Lebanon looks like the west of Ireland, but now in mid-summer the grass is scorched brown. Standing on the balcony of the officers mess there is a panoramic view of the rugged hills and valleys of the Irish area of operations.

An Israeli flag flies over a building on a hill to the right.

This is "IDF House", headquarters of the Israeli army in the Irish area of operations. The soldiers in IDF House reguularly fire at nothing in particular in the valley below their position.

Early in the morning they have patrols, which involve jeeps driving around the area at high speed. Everyone gets out of the way.

The previous week a car bomb exploded 100 yards away from IDF House. The three men who were in the car were killed instantly, but the Israelis fired several hundred rounds of machine gun fire into the car just to make sure. They sealed off the area for some time before allowing the Irish in to pick up the pieces. They made no move to help. Straight in front of us are Landsdowne House and Courtttown House, headquarters of the Dublin A company at Haddatah, a half a mile away from IDF House.

On the left is Hill 880 and the town of Brashit. Hill 880 is the highest point in the Irish AO, and the five sol. diers there spend a week in isolation at a time. Access to hill 880 is along a winding uphill dirt track, and cars appproaching can be seen ten minutes before they arrive. There are no surprise inspections on Hill 880.

The town of Brashit is hostile to the UN and is the home of a Christian Militia leader who is said to terrorise the locals and faces several murder charges, including, it is said, one of setting fire to his wife. Then there is an outpost on a hill called the Black Hole.

There was a hole on a hill and two cubicles were put on it to be used as toilets. The hole got very full, so someone decided to go into one of the cubicles, pour petrol into it and light it. It is called the black hole because there was someone in the other cubicle.

HOWLING NOISE comes FROM THE MINARET OF THE MOSQUE in the village of Ayte Zut down below us. This is the Imam (moslem priest) calling the faithful to pray. This happens me times a day in every village. "Jaysus", says one soldier, "yer man is off again."

In the past the Imam used to come out to the door of the mosque and sing lines from the Koran. Now there is a loudspeaker system on top of the minaret, and the sound is a tape recording.

They say that in recent years some UN soldiers got into a mosque and changed the tape, they say that in the early hours of the morning the Beatles sang for the people of South Lebanon. They say that the locals were not amused at all.

"This is a mingi shop", reads the wall of the garage like

building in the village of Haddatah. The shop is run by a woman called Laura. It's not her real name but all the Irish call her that. All shops that sell radios, tape recorders and almost anything else in the Irish AO are called mingi shops.

When the Irish served with the United Nations in the Congo in the 1960s, local traders used to try to sell anyything by shouting "mingi, mingi", the Swahili word for lots of or plenty. 20 years later this word has moved to South Lebanon. People talk of mingi tapes and mingi combs the local electricity service is known as mingi power.

A mingi man approaches the gate of Camp Shamrock laden with jewellery. Like all mingi men, he survives by parrot-learning all phrases that the Irish teach him. The Irish teach him some new words at the gate, and he wanders off towards the officers quarters shouting "ya fuckin' bollocks".

The six years of Irish presence in South Lebanon have had their effect on local culture. Instead of using the Arabic word for no "lah", the locals have learned the Irish version "big fuckin' lah". The local units of currency, lira, are known as lebs in all the local shops. One local fourteennyear-old gives his career plans in perfect Dublinese: "I'm going to bleedin' Ireland to join the army and come back here on me bleedin' holidays."

"The Irish are in high morality." So says the Muchtar of Tibnin through the local interpreter. F awas Fawas. On

the walls of his home are two Oglaigh na hEireann plaques, presented by former Chiefs of Staff. Beside these is a piccture of the Muchtar with the UNIFIL force commander, General Bill O'Callaghan, and towering above them all is a picture of the Christian Lebanese President, Amin Gemayel. The Muchtar , like eighty per cent of his villagers is a Shi'ite moslem.

The Irish are lucky that the Muchtar thinks they are in hi::b morality. Stories abound of soldiers from other continngents who weren't in such high morality, particularly in relation to modesty and women. Some of them will never recover, especially the French soldier, who, the Iads say, had his goolies cut off before being tied on top of a lampppost by the irate family of a local girl.

The Irish go to great pains not to offend against local customs. During Ramadan, when all moslems must abstain from food, drink and sex between the hours of sunrise and sunset, the few drinking houses in the Irish AO are out of bounds to the soldiers. When the Irish want to sunbathe they find a spot where they cannot be seen from outside the camp before exposing themselves.

"Their women are beautiful - but you daren't touch them," says one disconsolate soldier ill reluctant self restraint. But adaptation to a different moral code works both ways, as a visit to the well stocked Tibnin shop known as Porno Joe's testifies.

It's five o'clock and after the mid-afternoon heat, walking is becoming more comfortable. Groups of teennage girls saunter along the road away from Tibnin, then turn before Camp Shamrock and go back again. The local men drive their cars up to the top of the hill past Camp Shamrock, turn, and tear down the road into Tibnin past the women, who pretend not to notice. They do handbrake turns, burn their tyres and raise clouds of dust. This is a type of mating ritual which the Irish can watch from a discreet distance. They call it the virgin parade. It happens every evening.

OMETIMES THE TROOPS WRITE THINGS ON THE WALL ABOUT the assistant adjutant, Lieutenant Flynn. The assistant adjuutant features in a cartoon on the wall at Al Yatun. She occaasionally crops up in conversations in the canteen, as do Captain Keating, Corporal Holly, Private Gallagher, and Captain O'Loughlin. The Irish women in South Lebanon have got used to it. Corporal Holly looks very young and very small. She sits behind a typewriter in the sandbag prootected headquarters. She gets embarrassed as an officer comes in to say that "she's our darling here", and a sergeant comes in to say that "life would be very dull without her". Everyone passing through the room quickens their pace pointedly so as not to be seen to be listening.

Corporal Holly can shut them up when she beats them at darts in the canteen. She gets better accommodation than he men, because she gets to stay with the women officers, and the officers are inclined to treat the women a bit better than the men:

One of the men looks at his watch and tells us where to find Marie Flynn. "You'll catch her sunning herself," he says with a grin "if you're lucky." He knows the exact spot.

Behind the medical aid post, Lieutenant Marie Flynn is sunning herself. She talks of how the women used to be more confined when the Irish went to Lebanon first, for fear of offending the conservative moslems. She talks of how the female officers and NCOs are closer than the men because they have sorrie common experiences that the men wouldn't have. She tells of how she did much of her trainning in Britain's Sandhurst military academy because there were no women's toilets in the Curragh.

It was dark in Tibnin at nine 0 'clock and yer man was off again. The solemn voice of the Imam of Tibnin could be heard in every part of the town as the four man Irish foot patrol made its way through the outskirts of Tibnin to the "Berri quarter", where the family home of Shi'ite Amal leader Nabih Berri is situated. An Irish tank sits outside the house for about two hours each night. The four soldiers move along the road, crouching at every turning before running across one by one. The only sound is that of the crickets, and of course yer man.

The winding streets of Tibnin are becoming more popuulated as people come out to buy food after the day's fasting. One young man raises his hands in mock horror at the sight of the Irish. Another shouts "On the big Irish ball," and a third says "all this just for some photographs."

Something makes a big bang. The soldiers duck down, looking around furtively. After a few seconds they move on. Another bang. A noise like that on a South Lebanese night is unnerving, but it's only the kids letting off fireecrackers.

A snarling dog comes running to the Irish soldiers and has two guns pointed at him. Most Lebanese dogs look unnhealthy and emaciated, and there was a time when all dogs and cats wandering into the Irish camp were shot on sight. Soldiers tell horror stories of the eleven stomach injections necessary to treat rabies and these two are taking no chances. The dog barks around them and the soldiers cock their guns. The owner comes out of his house and rescues his hound.

The hot morning sun beats down on the tiny village of Haddatah. A handful of local children on the narrow pottholed road look towards the adjoining open space. An old peasant farmer with an overladen donkey makes his way past and into the village.

The seven-man pipe band strikes up "20 Men from Dublin Town" as Lieutenant Colonel McQuillan makes his way through the lines offorty blue-beretted green-uniformed Irish troops.

It's inspection time in the Irish Battalion. For a period of a week boots are polished, buildings cleaned out and uniforms ironed as the Commanding Officer tours the entire Irish AO.

The tune has finished before he has got through them all, so the orange kilted drummers and bagpipers play "20 Men from Dublin Town" again, as the CO moves from the soldiers to the assorted UN jeeps and armoured personnel carriers. The troops don't move a muscle until the inspecction is over and the officers retire into the big old house that serves as A Company Headquarters for tea and 7 Up.

The band pack up and prepare to move on to the next inspection where they will again play "20 Men from Dublin Town". A Private turns and says: "It's not a bad place you know, but you get tired of looking at Arabs and mingi men." •