At this point, it’s pretty clear that Cynthia Hess-von Kruedener enjoys danger.
She is three days into a pilgrimage to southern Lebanon, journeying to the site where her husband was killed 10 years ago, and she’s going there to pay her final respects. She is on a bus heading for Khiam. To her right, there are minefields, to her left, a several hundred-foot-drop off a road with no guardrail.
“Ok, we’re having fun now,” she says joyfully.
Southern Lebanon isn’t an active war zone, at least in the sense that the combatants in the area are not currently shooting at each other. However, they are all actively preparing to shoot at each other, with the terrorist group Hezbollah among the most active in preparing for what seems to be an almost inevitable future war.
By the Canadian government’s current accounting system, southern Lebanon ranks alongside Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia; it is one of the world’s most dangerous places. It could go from its current tranquil Mediterranean peace to something that looks a lot like total war in about 12 minutes.
Which is what happened in 2006. On an otherwise nice day in July, a small unit of Hezbollah fighters crossed the border, attacked an Israeli patrol, and vanished back across into Lebanon, dragging two Israelis with them. Within minutes the two countries were at war. At least Israel was at war with Hezbollah and the only thing standing in the way was the United Nations.
So that’s how Cynthia’s husband, Paeta Hess-von Kruedener, got killed. He was a Canadian Army major deployed to Lebanon as a military observer and while the actual reasons for his death remain unclear, people agree on certain things.
Hess-von Kruedener and his three UN comrades were inside their bunker-like base in Khiam on July 25, 2006, when Israeli jets took several concerted runs at destroying their position. The Israelis eventually admitted the base was on their targeting list, but not how it got there, or how they failed to listen to the UN requesting they stop the attack as they had in the past. Eventually, they put a guided bomb through the front door and everyone died.
But that’s not what this story is about. Or not just that.
This is a story about the long and difficult road that Cynthia has taken to come to terms with what happened in 2006, and what it cost her. She hasn’t worked much since it happened, she hasn’t really thought of much else, and now she’s come back for the 10th anniversary, the only relative of the dead to make the trip, the only widow there to hear the speeches.
Grief is not always a controllable force
As Cynthia understands it, the whole thing works as follows: you live for one person, and then that person is taken away from you suddenly, irreversibly and unfairly, and then you have to continue living.
In the year after her husband died, Cynthia wanted to go to Khiam but she wasn’t allowed. Instead, she was able to go to Israel and meet with the people who, one way or another, had killed her husband. Which really didn’t make things better.
There’s one story from that trip she’ll never forget. She met an Israeli colonel who talked to her about the war before saying, “You will always live in July 25, 2006,” then offering his hand. “I didn’t offer my hand back,” says Cynthia, “I didn’t know what to say to the man.”
It’s been almost 10 years since then and it has to be said, the colonel was not wrong.
“It gets me thinking about all the things that took place,” says Cynthia. “Ten years have passed. And what’s happened in the past 10 years? Where have I gotten in life? What has happened about this in the past 10 years?
“Over the years I’ve watched many people go through this sort of thing, and I’ve watched people get justice, and get satisfaction, and that’s really frustrating when you see there’s been no accountability. The news happens and for three days people are all concerned about that one event and then they move on. But I didn’t.”
Nobody knows why Israel attacked the base (other than a handful of Israelis who aren’t talking). Nobody on the trip believes the story that it was put on the targeting list by mistake. Israel has a long history of animosity and outright hostility toward the UN and this is just one example of that. It’s unlikely there will ever be justice for her husband and the other peacekeepers killed that day.
“He was forgotten, and that is not right. I think about what he went through every day. When you’re in this bunker and you know this is it. And nobody knows, and you’re on your own,” Cynthia stops, looks off. “I want to move on, but whoever is in my life has to understand…this is there and there is not a thing I can do about it.”
It may have to be enough that Cynthia comes to understand that her husband was killed in the line of duty. The prevailing sentiment is that Israel had reasons for wanting the base gone, the observers gone, so that they could go about their war. And she gets that. “He would want me to go on with my life,” she says. “But that’s easier said than done.
“That’s why I’m going back—to say goodbye. I have to say goodbye.”
A trip to Khiam, a ridge overlooking Israel
On July 25, 2016, Cynthia troops down to the parking lot of a hotel in Tyr, southern Lebanon, to meet a huge group of current and former UN military observers (UNMOs) to board a big white bus for the trip up to Khiam for the memorial service.
When Cynthia first began planning this trip back in the winter, it was unclear who would be at the 10-year memorial for her husband, and it wasn’t clear that anyone was keen on having her go. But as it turned out, many of Paeta’s colleagues from 2006 came back to be at what may be the best last chance to say goodbye to their fallen comrades. They came from all over to be here, and they took the same risks Cynthia took.
When they all got on the bus to leave for the memorial, there was a briefing from one of the camouflage-clad UNMOs currently deployed to southern Lebanon.
“Flak jackets and helmets are onboard and we will provide them to you,” he says, standing at the front of the bus. “If it’s required, you will put them on. If something happens, stay alert. I will give you direction or any UNMO will give you directions.”
It’s a strange pilgrimage, travelling to a memorial ceremony in a place where travelling is technically forbidden, where you’d have to have a very high tolerance for risk to ever want to go.
“We’re going through Hezbollah territory. There’s no question about where we are. But I don’t care. I don’t care. Yes, there’s a risk. But so be it,” says Cynthia.
She really doesn’t care about the danger. If you ask her if she’s fearless, she says: “Either that or craziness,” and then she’ll laugh and laugh. “I don’t care. I have to do it. I loved him. And knowing that there’s a monument to him and others means I have to be there. I’m his wife, I need to go there. I need to be there and touch the place where he was lost. It’s from the heart. It is the heart.”
The trip up to Khiam is slow but certain. Lebanese armed forces are in the lead, then armed UN members, then unarmed UN members, just a giant convoy winding its way up into the hills above the coast, lights flashing.
As it turned out, the ceremony couldn’t have gone better. Canadian Ambassador Michelle Cameron came down from Beirut to help Cynthia and pay her respects. There was a huge crowd from the UN, and lots of local Lebanese of every persuasion.
The memorial is two stark concrete ramparts, formerly blast walls at the base, full of battle damage. On them are the pictures and names of the four peacekeepers. Major Hans-Peter Lang, 44, from Austria. Lieutenant Senior Grade Jarno Makinen, 29, from Finland. Major Du Zhaoyu, 34, from China. And Paeta.
Cynthia places a wreath on behalf of Paeta. She was accompanied by Canadian Major Richard Little. It is windy and sunny up on the ridge. Security is tight. Israeli military installations dot the hills all around.
When the speeches are over, Cynthia leaves the ceremony and goes to the actual spot where Paeta died. She had been planning this for a long time. She brought some things to bury, and a flask of whiskey to pour out.
Afterwards, she explains why. “I had to let the emotion out. I have to go on. I’m at that point where that needs to happen now. I have to go forward.”
There will be time
In the days after coming back to Canada from the trip, Cynthia says she’s thinking of selling her house. It will be hard though, because there is a room in that house dedicated to the memory of her husband, full of pictures and plaques and clippings.
Cynthia has sought counselling for her grief in the past, but it hasn’t worked. One counsellor even told her she was stuck, then stopped seeing her.
Before going on the trip, I asked her why she was doing it, why take the risk. She said: “We want a better world but the tactics that we’re taking of killing people don’t seem to be working. I don’t know if it’s possible, to be honest, with the way the world works, to make it better, but we have to go toward it.
“I want to come through that violence. I lived through it. It changed me. I’ve learned a lot from my grief. I watched it kill people. I’ve watched it turn people really negative. It’s been hard. And you can see it on my face. And I want to change that as well. I want to smile more, because life is great. You have to wade through it. You have to fight through it.”
So she’s going to try to do it herself. She’s in her mid-fifties now. Paeta was 44 when he died. “I don’t know how this works, this closure thing,” she said. “I think maybe it’s learning to live and moving forward. I can’t worry about anything else other than how I choose to face these things. I just have to get up and move on.”
The plan may be tentative, but at least it’s a plan. Sell the house, pack up the room.
“There’s a lot of pictures in that room that will go into a box,” Cynthia said.