MARJAYOUN, Lebanon—The new international force expected to monitor the Lebanese-Israeli border will enter a highly ambiguous and volatile landscape, illustrated by the front-line experience of an Indian battalion that's found little peace to keep after being caught in the middle of the war between Israel and Hezbollah militants.
More than 150 French military engineers arrived in Lebanon on Friday to search for unexploded munitions, and the European Union pledged to supply half of the 15,000 peacekeepers called for in the fragile truce agreement between the warring parties.
But putting more boots on the ground isn't insurance against another explosion in a place teeming with land mines, both literal and figurative.
"It's a very difficult role for a military person. Your hands are tied," said Maj. Saurabh Pandey, the spokesman for India's 4th Battalion, Sikh Regiment, which is part of UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping mission already in Lebanon. "We are combatants. We have all been trained to fight, but here we are just here to see."
It's still unclear what precisely the mandate will be for the new U.N. troops, of which 2,000 will be French and 3,000 Italian. Hassan Saqlawi, a UNIFIL spokesman in the port city of Nakoura, where the first French contingent arrived aboard six vessels, offered this assessment: "We are not going to replace the government. Our job is to assist the Lebanese government to come back to power here."
Few understand the difficulty of such a task better than the 4th Battalion, whose 700 troops make up half the combat component of UNIFIL.
The combat label is a stretch—the Indians are simply monitors who record violations along the so-called "blue line" that divides the craggy hills of southern Lebanon from the lush greenery of northern Israel. Their headquarters lies in Marjayoun, a predominantly Christian town separated from Israel by a flimsy barbed-wire fence.
Until the conflict began July 12 with Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers, the Indian troops considered themselves neutral observers.
They looked for patterns in the traffic that entered and exited the villages under their watch. They tracked the movements of "the As," or armed elements, their code for the shadowy guerrillas of Hezbollah. They listened for Israeli aircraft violating Lebanese air space. And they offered grateful farmers free medical treatment for their families and veterinary services for their livestock.
Pandey's little black journal chronicles the area's sudden descent into chaos. The officer's entries for early July were innocuous: a briefing on bird flu, outreach to local media, dental checkups.
Then, overnight, the peacekeepers found themselves embroiled in war.
"July 12 came and we were slapped," Pandey said, flipping through the pages of his diary. "See, I wrote `two missiles fired.' And later, `down in bunker.' Then I wrote about the first casualties, the destruction and now the humanitarian relief."
A hilltop position in the village of Houla underscores the high price for using U.N. forces as a buffer. The Indian post there was the sole barrier between a massive, heavily guarded Israeli position on one side and, not even 500 feet away, crudely dug Hezbollah trenches on the other.
In the first week of fighting, Israeli tank shells destroyed part of the Indians' barracks and nearly pierced through the heavy sandbags that enclosed a bunker where 20 peacekeepers sought shelter. Travel became so dangerous that the trapped Indians were down to one onion and four potatoes before a rations truck made a risky trip to deliver food.
Hezbollah's rocket volleys whizzed dangerously close, and the Indians marveled at the arsenal the militant group had assembled virtually in secret.
"They were firing 150 rockets every day," Pandey said. "Heaven knows where they came from or how they came."
As the conflict dragged on for a week, then two, and then four, the Indians warily went back to work. Their simple observation mission expanded to include rescue work, street repair, village evacuations and corpse removal. Often, they worked under heavy fire in areas severed from the outside world.
By the time the U.N.-brokered cease-fire was in place, three Indian peacekeepers had been wounded and several of their posts heavily damaged. Throughout the ordeal, Indian officers said, their troops didn't fire a single shot. According to their mandate, they weren't allowed to.
"That's what the discipline of a soldier is. You can't go berserk because of the difficulty of the circumstances," said Lt. Col. Maninder S. Chahal, deputy commander of the Indian battalion.
On Friday, more than a week into the truce, the Indian observation post was still littered with glass shards and other debris from the Israeli strikes. Even though a U.N. flag flies along the border, the peacekeepers said, they must ask permission from Israel before approaching. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has abandoned its positions behind the post and Israeli armor has turned the guerrilla dugouts into mounds of dirt. The Lebanese fighters no longer tote guns in public.
"Somehow they have all melted away in the crowd," Pandey said. "You can't make them out these days. They changed from their uniforms into civilian clothes and they're gone. The number of sightings has gone down."
The entire area remains tense and the cease-fire delicate. Unexploded ordnance dots the terrain, and the villagers who once welcomed the blue-turbaned peacekeepers now look upon them warily, even as they distribute 50,000 liters of drinking water every day.
On a drive through the Indian area of operations, Pandey stopped along a winding mountain road to point out how close the Israelis were to the border fence. He quickly realized that they were closer than he imagined.
"OK, there is already an air violation going on, and did you see the tanks?" Pandey said, gesturing to an Israeli drone overhead and six Israeli armored vehicles that had crossed into a valley on the Lebanese side of the border. A white Israeli surveillance balloon also bobbed in the sky.
Pandey made sure the U.N. flag attached to his white SUV was visible and then motioned for his guests to move quickly.
"Time to go," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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