Beirut Days

November 1, 2000 by Legion Magazine

by William M. Koch

The author poses for a photo during a 1984 visit
to the dividing line separating Christian East
Beirut and Muslim West Beirut.

In 1983, after 32 years of service in the Canadian navy, I asked my career manager for a posting that would involve something different. At the time, I was serving on the staff of Maritime Forces Pacific, and after clawing my way from ordinary seaman to lieutenant-commander, I felt a change was needed—not that my career up to that point had been uneventful.

After all, I had served in seven ships, including minesweepers, frigates, destroyers and a cruiser. Included was a North Atlantic Treaty Organization tour in 1974 in a Canadian navy destroyer that served as flagship in the Standing Naval Force Atlantic.

I had also served five years in an arctic naval radio station. Less memorable was surviving the crash of a four-engine North Star at the Royal Canadian Air Force air base in Vancouver in December 1953. My next time in the air was aboard a single-engine Norseman that ran out of fuel during an arctic flight in late November 1954. Luckily, the aircraft was able to glide in for a landing on the wind-swept ice of the Mackenzie River. We were without any form of heat and the temperature on the ground was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. What made our situation worse was the fact that northern gear was not issued prior to departure, but would be handed out upon our arrival at the station. Needless to say, my Donald Duck cap, canvas overshoes and my light coat were no match for the arctic cold.

Another air experience occurred while taking off from a lake in Inuvik, N.W.T. We were in a float-equipped 172 Cessna and I was sitting by the rear door. As the aircraft became airborne, the door against which I was sitting suddenly opened. Whoops! On another occasion, while returning to the West Coast from Eastern Canada, I changed planes in Toronto. While the commercial aircraft was heading out to the runway it was diverted to an off-ramp position where I was flattered to see fire engines, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and city police vehicles out to bid us farewell. Wrong! We were ordered to disembark in order to allow for a bomb search! After some time, we were told to board the same plane. The airline company may have been satisfied with the search results, but I wasn’t—not then and not later when we were at 33,000 feet.

After my career manager had finished throwing his darts to determine where he could send me for “something different”, I soon found myself aboard a plane bound for Amsterdam and a connecting flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. This was May 2, 1984. After reporting in at the Canadian contingent headquarters in the Golan Heights, I was transported to Jerusalem where I reported to United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, UNTSO, headquarters.

Within days I found myself in a UN Volkswagen van en route to Beirut, Lebanon, via Jordan and Syria. The trip through Jordan was uneventful, but the ride through Damascus, Syria, was intimidating. Everywhere I looked, armed guards, civilian and military alike, kept vigil at government and military buildings and at the many embassies. After crossing the Syrian-Lebanese border, we encountered checkpoints manned by different factions. Some of the gun-toting sentries were no older than early teens and appeared more nervous than the people who passed through their controlled areas.

The real fun began after I arrived in Beirut. Almost every building in Muslim West Beirut was wrecked. Entrances to buildings were sandbagged and the streets were full of people who came out to shop during lulls in the frequent gun battles. After nine years of civil war, the locals had become attuned to this way of life. I, too, became accustomed to the constant small arms, artillery and tank fire. In fact, when I left Beirut for a few days of rest and relaxation in Damascus, I couldn’t sleep because it was too quiet.

The civil war between the Muslims and Christians was raging in Beirut and the UN was tasked to monitor the situation and report events to UN headquarters in New York City via UNTSO headquarters in Jerusalem. Beirut was divided by what was known as the Green Line. The area to the west of this demarcation line was occupied and controlled by a number of Muslim militias. Meanwhile the area to the east of the Green Line was occupied and controlled by Christian militias. The UN conducted mobile vehicular patrols and occasionally foot patrols in both West and East Beirut. We crossed the Green Line daily because Observer Group Beirut headquarters was located in Christian East Beirut.

The width of the Green Line varied between 10 and 30 metres and stretched for approximately 20 kilometres. Snipers had taken up positions on rooftops on both sides of the line. The Muslims and the Christians had generous amounts of small arms ammunition and used it freely. Occasionally, UN patrols would visit Lebanese Army Observer positions along the Green Line to obtain situation reports. Any movement along the line would immediately draw sniper fire from one or both sides. On several occasions, I zigzagged my way along the Green Line, running as fast as I could while ducking small arms fire. To this day, I’m the fastest runner on our block.

Two weeks after my arrival—while conducting a mobile patrol in Muslim West Beirut—my Swedish army patrol mate and I were hijacked by members of a Muslim militia. As the two of us stared down the business ends of several Kalashnikov rifles, we quickly realized there was no room for negotiation. The hijackers ordered us from our UN vehicle and then lined us up against a cement wall with our backs to them. The next thing we knew they were speeding away in our vehicle that contained our flak jackets, helmets, VHF radio and two bags of newly arrived mail.

Moments later we were approached by two local Muslims who had witnessed the hijacking. They were both in their mid-20s and while they didn’t speak English, they motioned for us to get into the back seat of an old beat up Mercedes-Benz. We weren’t too crazy about that because we thought they might have been part of the same gang that hijacked our vehicle. And so we visualized ourselves swinging from rafters somewhere in the Shouf Mountains southwest of Beirut.

After a short while we determined that they wanted to help us, and so still somewhat reluctantly, we took our places in the back seat. They then drove us to a hotel where we called headquarters. The two locals also told us the name of the hijackers’ militia unit. We visited the militia headquarters in an attempt to get our vehicle and its contents back, but we were unsuccessful. However, the two mailbags were turned over to the Red Cross and while examining them we discovered that each letter had been opened. Insult was added to injury when it was determined that one of the vehicles used in the hijacking was one of more than 25 stolen from the UN vehicle compound.

My UN tour was an accompanied one, and so my wife, Anne, joined me in the Middle East. She wasn’t allowed to live in Lebanon because it was just too dangerous, so we located her in Damascus.

After six months of dodging anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, small arms, artillery and tank fire, I was transferred to the more peaceful Observer Group Lebanon in South Lebanon. Anne was moved to the small city of Nahariyya, Israel, on the shore of the Mediterranean. Observer Group Lebanon was under the operational control of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon where some 5,800 personnel enforced UN resolutions and monitored the occupation of South Lebanon by the Israeli army.

No less hazardous than becoming caught in crossfires between warring militias, driving over mines, finding booby-trapped pens, flashlights or walking into a trip-wire that activated explosive devices, was hitting one of the goats or sheep that invariably had the right of way on the very narrow and rough roads. Hitting one of these animals was much more serious than striking the shepherd. You dared not stop if you accidently hit a goat.

Besides monitoring UN resolutions and reporting infractions to UN headquarters, we provided humanitarian aid to civilians and escorted Red Cross/Red Crescent personnel on missions to recover the remains of terrorists who had been caught in Israeli army gunsights. The amount recovered depended upon the type of weapon the person had gotten in front of. As observers, we also witnessed many Israeli army operations directed at Lebanese communities where searches were conducted for suspected terrorists. This was part of Israeli’s famous Iron Fist policy. I was fortunate that after 26 months in Lebanon, I escaped unscathed. However, a number of my colleagues were less fortunate.

In June 1986, I was transferred to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, headquarters in Damascus. My other choice from my career manager was a posting to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. This I declined.

Life in UNDOF was peaceful compared to Lebanon. And yes, the goats and sheep were on the roads there too!

My UNDOF tour was for two years, but I only served one. While on leave in Victoria to attend my son’s university graduation in June 1987, I suffered a mild heart attack. I had been having chest pains before going on leave, but attributed this to heartburn. Medical facilities in Syria were not like those at home and so I didn’t relish the idea of spending my leave in a Syrian hospital.

The heart attack meant that I was not allowed to return to Damascus, not even to recover our personal effects. Anne returned and oversaw the move and she had quite a job because packers and movers as we know them in Canada do not exist in Damascus. With the help of other Canadian and other UN members, Anne accomplished the move admirably, but after returning to Victoria she suffered a mild heart attack.

After my recovery, I continued to serve in various appointments in Victoria until commencing retirement leave that expired in August 1989. And oh yes, remember the car hijacking in Beirut? When we received the two mailbags from the Red Cross, one bag contained one of the licence plates from the hijacked vehicle. Licence plate UNTSO 132 now hangs proudly in our garage in Victoria and it is a constant reminder of my three years in “the service of peace”. My blue beret also enjoys a prominent spot in the front hallway of our home. Our den and rumpus room contain other memorabilia from the most challenging, enjoyable and often frightening three years of my long naval career.

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