Norwegians leave after 20 years

Norwegians get ready to leave south after 20 dangerous years

The soldiers of Unifil's Norwegian battalion (Norbatt) have begun packing their equipment and saying their farewells in preparation for their departure from the south after 20 years serving with the peacekeepers. By Nov. 29, all but four of the 625-strong battalion will have gone home, the last of some 33,000 Norwegian troops to have served with Unifil since 1978. In that time, 21 of them have been killed. The four staying behind will act as a liaison team for the Indian taking over the area.

The departure of Norbatt has evoked mixed emotions. The soldiers, while looking forward to going home, are disappointed not to have been here to witness an Israeli withdrawal from the south. The residents of Ibl es-Saqi, the location of Norbatt's headquarters, who have made a lucrative income from selling goods to the Norwegians, are despondent at the departure of the well-paid European troops, and fear for their livelihoods. The Norwegian government decided in June to pull its troops out of Lebanon, citing recruitment problems. Oslo had been considering ending its commitment to Unifil for over two years as Norway, like most European countries, follows a policy of reducing the size of its military.

"We're sad to be leaving," admitted Colonel Roy Grottheim, Norbatt's commanding officer. "If peace comes in one or two years, it would have been nice to be here with the local residents celebrating the peace."

Norbatt's area of operations, 60 square kilometers of soaring mountains and deep gorges, is unique among Unifil's six battalions in that it lies wholly inside the occupation zone. Given that isolation, the battalion faces a formidable logistical task in ferrying soldiers and tons of equipment along the rutted road from Ibl es-Saqi to Gandouriye, outside the zone.

The 100 Indian troops arrive Thursday, but the Norwegians will not start to leave for another 10 days. By Nov. 25, 560 Indians will have joined Unifil. "We're doing the detailed planning now," said Colonel Grottheim. "We'll replace our men with Indian soldiers position by position during the day time. Much of our equipment belongs to the UN and will stay here."

Colonel Grottheim, who met an advance party of Indian soldiers two weeks ago when they were assessing the situation on the ground, admitted having been impressed by the Indians. "My first impression was very good. It seems like they're professionals and they asked relevant questions. I think they'll do a good job here," he said.

The Indians have a strong peacekeeping pedigree, having served in Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait and Angola. Their contingent will consist of one of the highly-respected Gurkha battalions, who should feel at home in the mountainous terrain.

One of the major roles played by the Norwegians, like all Unifil battalions, is the extensive humanitarian work carried out in their respective areas. "The Indians are bringing in doctors, vets and so on to keep up the good work we've done for the past 20 years," said Colonel Grottheim. The Indians will also follow the Norwegian practice of using dogs to accompany soldiers on patrol. The dogs, described by one Unifil officer as "the best peacekeepers of all," check for planted explosives, smuggled drugs and infiltrators into the battalion's area of operations. Although the Indians were accepted by the UN, some people in Ibl es-Saqi have voiced concerns that their income will be affected once Norbatt leaves. "I don't think the locals really believed we were leaving until they saw the Indian advance party last month," said Captain Asmund Lang, Norbatt's press officer.

Elias Larkis, who owns a store selling food and drinks, said he would be forced to sell his shop. "I spent $35,000 three years ago to expand and now I have nothing. When the last Norwegian leaves I'll close my shop."

Mr. Larkis, who has learned to speak fluent Norwegian in the two decades he has been selling goods to the troops, said the whole village would suffer with Norbatt's departure.

Eid Assi, who runs a clothing store in the village, was more phlegmatic. "It's too soon to say what will happen to us," he said. "If the Indians have good salaries and are willing to buy from us then we'll stay."

The mayor of Ibl es-Saqi, Riad Abu Samra, acknowledged that there was some uncertainty over the arrival of the Indians. "When we heard the news that Norbatt was leaving, we were all very sad, not just from Ibl es-Saqi but all over the area. The chain of money we make here benefits everyone. But that's life, everything comes to an end," he said.

However, Colonel Grottheim pointed out that the role of Unifil is to maintain peace and not fill the pockets of local traders. "I understand that they might be concerned," he said. "But I've told them we're here for peace and when peace comes, all the battalions will be going home and they'll have to make their own way."


Bron: Lebanese news, Daily Star 04/11/98 - Nicholas Blanford