Trevor Laffan: Saluting 47 Irish who lost their lives in name of peace in ‘Leb’

Lebanon has featured prominently in the lives of Irish armed forces personnel and their families for decades, writes Trevor Laffan. The 47 Irish who died in the Lebanon will be remembered with the planting of a Lebanon Cedar tree in the grounds of St Benedict’s Priory in Cobh, Co. Cork, at 2pm this Saturday, September 28, 2019.
Trevor Laffan: Saluting 47 Irish who lost their lives in name of peace in ‘Leb’

VITAL WORK: An Irish soldier of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrols a road in the country this month.

MOST of us have heard of Lebanon, and we might even know enough to associate it with the flag that has a cedar tree in the middle of it.

But beyond that, I suspect, most of us know little about the country, even though the Irish have a long association with it.

You’ll find it in western Asia, sandwiched between Syria on one side and Israel on the other. It has a troubled history and Irish Defence Forces, including both the army and navy, have been going there, on and off, since 1978 as part of a United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Force.

Lebanon has featured prominently in the lives of Irish armed forces personnel and their families for decades. It’s affectionately referred to as ‘The Leb’ by the troops, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing for those serving there. They’ve had their share of tragedy.

In 1980, a UN patrol was ambushed, and three soldiers were kidnapped and tortured. The three of them were shot, two were killed while the third soldier survived.

In 1989, three young Irish soldiers were blown up when they went over a landmine, and in 1987 an Irish soldier was killed when an Israeli tank shell hit his UN post.

A total of 47 Irish personnel have died while on service there, including a number from Cork.

Some found it difficult to return to normal life as a result of their experience. One of those who struggled after serving in Lebanon is a retired soldier by the name of Chris Donovan, and he told his story to Ryan Tubridy on the radio recently.

He was only 19 years old when he made his first trip there with the army. He told of a horrific incident he witnessed and even now, many years later, he has difficulty telling it. He saw a girl being murdered.

Chris was on duty one day when he saw a young girl, about 15 years old, picking fruit. He knew the girl and her family because they were living locally, and he saw them regularly. They were in poor circumstances and the soldiers used to help the family out by giving them some of their food.

Suddenly, a man, who was known to the military, walked up behind the girl, produced a pistol and shot her dead. He immediately dropped the gun and ran through the victim’s house and down a hill where he was collected by others and driven away. He dropped the gun because he knew that the UN Forces couldn’t shoot an unarmed man.

Chris gave a vivid account of what it was like to be on duty there and how they were living on their nerves because they never knew where the next assault was going to come from.

He explained how this heightened sense of awareness was always with him and he found it difficult to relax when he came home. He was always tense.

On one occasion, while he was home on leave, a friend of his asked him to go with him to see the film Saving Private Ryan. His friend never turned up, but he decided to go in himself anyway. In the course of the film, there was a scene involving heavy gun fire and he was reminded of an incident back in Lebanon.

The sound of the bullets hitting metal got the better of him and Chris began to shake. He couldn’t stand, so he crawled out of the cinema on his hands and knees and started to cry. He didn’t know what was wrong with him.

He gathered himself together, went across the road to a pub for a drink, and that was the start of a downward spiral for him.

Chris drank heavily and survived two suicide attempts before finally leaving the army. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and thankfully, received treatment, and is now on the way to recovery.

His case isn’t unusual because at the end of the radio show, there were others who sent in messages of support, saying that they had had similar experiences.

That stands to reason, since the UN has been deployed in South Lebanon for 40 years and was regularly caught in the middle of a vicious conflict between Israel and their allies, the South Lebanon Army on one side and the Shia Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah on the other.

UN troops are no strangers to conflict and they’re still there, watching over the Blue Line.

And just in case you thought this was all historical, it was only a few weeks ago that Irish peacekeeping troops had to take shelter in bunkers after their area of operations in south Lebanon was struck by Israeli mortar fire. They were caught up in a firefight between the Israeli army and the Hezbollah faction.

Most of the 450-strong battalion took cover in the bunkers as mortars and artillery shells fell close to their positions, but all personnel were safe. So, it is still going on.

The Irish have developed a well-earned reputation over the years and are well regarded by the Lebanese people. They have forged strong links with the country and, apart from their peacekeeping efforts, their humanitarian activities haven’t gone unnoticed either.

There are many stories of how military personnel supported local communities.

As a mark of respect to the 47 Irish who have died in Lebanon, their colleagues in the Cobh branch of O.N.E (Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen) in association with The Irish Lebanese Cultural Foundation, are planting a Lebanon Cedar tree in the grounds of St Benedict’s Priory in Cobh, Co. Cork, at 2pm this Saturday, September 28, 2019.

The planting will be conducted by Mr Guy Jones, Chairman of I.L.C.F, and the tree will stand as a reminder of the connection between our two countries.

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