NEWS

FOCUS: Grapes Of Wrath: Our Peacekeepers Story

Nineteen years ago today, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), launched a retaliatory attack, dubbed Operation Grapes of Wrath, in South Lebanon in the United Nations Interin Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL)
18 Apr 2015 10:53
FOCUS: Grapes Of Wrath: Our Peacekeepers Story

Nineteen years ago today, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), launched a retaliatory attack, dubbed Operation Grapes of Wrath, in South Lebanon in the United Nations Interin Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) area of operation.

It was in response to artillery rounds fired by armed elements towards Israel from Qana.

When it was over 500 plus people were dead and five Fijian peacekeepers were among the injured. Miraculously, no Fijian was killed. Shortly after that the Fijian peacekeeping mandate ended. Early this year the mandate was renewed and Fijian peacekeepers returned to Southern Lebanon.

The Republic of Fiji Military Forces Media Cell looks back to that fateful day in April 1996. It brings closer to home the danger and the risks associated with peacekeeping in theatres of war. This opinion-editorial feature was prepared by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces Media Cell.

Civil War in Lebanon

Lebanon was a multi-sectarian state before the out-break of the civil war. The Sunni dominated the coast, the Shia dominated the South while the parliamentary structure formulated by the French Colonial Powers since 1920 favored a leading position for the Christians in the Lebanese Government.

The displacement of one hundred thousand Palestinians to Lebanon after the establishment of the Israeli State in 1948 had changed the demographic balance that increased the Muslim’s presence in Lebanon.

The Palestine refugees in Lebanon were then militarized following the expulsion of Palestine forces from Jordan. This resulted in the arms race by Lebanese political factions that ignited Lebanon’s prolonged involvement in regional conflicts.

The Lebanese civil war that broke out in April 1975 officially ended in October 1976. However, fighting continued in South Lebanon between the Christian militia, a group of armed elements supported by Israel and various Lebanese armed elements.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the supported Lebanese Armed elements for the Lebanese National Movement.

Later the PLO dominated the armed element’s presence by establishing several bases in the South. The main objective of the PLO expansion was to launch raids against Israel. However, all armed elements’ raids in Israel were encountered with intensive Israeli retaliations in South Lebanon. The effects of the civil war and encounters between Lebanese armed elements and the Israeli Defense Force had resulted in an estimated 120,000 fatalities and approximately 76,000 people remain displaced in Lebanon during the period.

Raids and Invasion

In March 1978, a commando raid in Israel claimed by the PLO, impacted on Tel Aviv. Israeli sources revealed that 37 people were killed and 76 wounded.

In response, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon on Tuesday 14th March 1978 and occupied the entire region south of the Litani River except Tyre and the outskirts of the city. Israel’s occupation of the region was opposed by a strong worded protest of the Lebanese Government submitted to the United Nations Security Council on 15th March 1978.

The Security Council then adopted resolution 425 (1978) that demanded strict respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty and the political independence of Lebanon with its internationally recognized boundaries.

The resolution also called IDF to cease actions in the region, their withdrawal from the Lebanese territory and the establishment of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon(UNIFIL).

Israel carried out more invasions in South Lebanon in retaliation to continued armed element’s katyusha rocket firing into Israel when the UNIFIL was in place. One such incident that occurred during one of Israel’s incursions in South Lebanon was the launching of Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996. Several incidents had occurred in Fijibatt AO during this operation. One notable one that would personally affect the Fijian soldiers serving with UNIFIL at that time was the IDF artillery barrage of UN Position 1 – 20. It was located within the Fiji Battalion (Fijibatt) Area of Operation (AO) and the location of the Fijibatt Tactical Headquarters.

The 19th Fijian Battalion (Fijibatt 19), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wame Waqanivavalagi was serving with the UNIFIL from 1995 to 1996 when Operation Grapes of Wrath unleashed its disastrous attacks into South Lebanon. The operation was in retaliation to the Hezbollah katyusha rocket attacks on Northern Israeli Settlements.

Peacekeeping

Fiji’s contribution to the United Nations peacekeeping effort to maintain peace in various United Nations mandates has come at a cost.

A total of sixty-three (63) Fijian peacekeepers have sacrificed their lives on the altar of peace.

This included thirty five (35) who died while serving with UNIFIL in Lebanon, fourteen (14) died whilst serving with the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, three (03) died serving with the UN Mission in East Timor, five (05) died while serving with UN Guard Unit in Iraq, one (01) died serving with UNMISS, one (01) died while serving with UN Mission in Kossovo, one (01) died serving with UN Mission in Namibia, two (02) died serving with UN mission in Iraq and one (01) died serving with the regional mission (RAMSI) in Solomon Islands.

The highest number of peacekeeping casualties severely impacted Fijian soldiers who served with the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) to curb civil war, military and armed element’s raids in Israel and South Lebanon.

The Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces’s address during his visit to Lebanon in February 2015, reminded the soldiers of the dangerous nature of the mission.

One such incident was the IDF Operation Grapes of Wrath that affected soldiers and civilians. The fatal incident occurred at the Fijibatt Tactical Headquarters, located in the Lebanese Town known as Qana, titled UN Position 1 – 20 on 18th April 1996.

Operation Grapes of Wrath

Operation Grapes of Wrath was an Israeli Military Campaign launched in South Lebanon on Saturday 11th April1996 with the objective to stop Herzbollah Katyusha rocket attacks in Northern Israel.

After being given the green light, the Israeli Defense Force immediately carried out heavy artillery attacks on Hezbollah infrastructure and terror bases. After the initial attack on 11th April, the IDF issued a warning to local civilians to vacate their villages within 24 hours.

Old men and women, young women and children vacated their villages following the IDF verbal warnings advising the local civilians to vacate their villages before the onslaught commenced.

Fijibatt troops based at UN Position 1-23 (Sarafui) provided transportation and escorts to the civilians being evacuated to Tyre.

Officer Commanding Alpha Company, Major Niko Bukarau, was leading the evacuation mission of conveying members of Al Mansuri village that night. Details of the evacuation convoy were relayed from Major Bukarau to Fijibatt Operations then to the UNIFIL operations.

The convoy details was then relayed to the IDF Northern Command who agreed to the evacuation process, however they warned if any other vehicle will join the convoy on the way, they will bombard the whole convoy.

The situation was volatile while the convoy moved slowly towards the Tyre Pocket.

The Fijibatt Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Wame Waqanivavalagi and his Fijibatt Headquarters staff, listened silently from the Operations Cell at Position 1 – 20 hoping that no incident would occur along the way to Tyre.

As the convoy progressed along the coastal road, two Israeli Air Force Cobra helicopters were hovering across the Mediterranean Sea keeping a close watch on the evacuation convoy.

Suddenly the VHF Radio at the Fijibatt Operations Cell broke the silence. “We have driven past Serua (A Fijibatt Position located along the coastal road)”, Major Bukarau reported.

A sigh of relief appeared in the Operations Cell knowing that Major Bukarau and his men were travelling safely along the coastal road in the Tyre Pocket.

Unfortunately, local civilians who did not have the resources to evacuate their families to Tyre resorted to seeking refuge at various UN Positions in South Lebanon. On 17th April the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) issued another verbal warning, this time to UNIFIL Operations Cell stating that they’ll retaliate to any area where armed elements’ rocket attacks were fired from, even from the vicinity of UN Positions.

Humanitarian Assistance

As the engagements between IDF and Lebanese Armed Elements continued, local Lebanese civilians swarmed UN positions in search of shelter and safety from the IDF bombardments.

Accepting displaced Lebanese into Fijibatt positions was part of the UNIFIL’s mandate as well as International Humanitarian Law.

As a UN mandate, UNIFIL was also bounded by International Humanitarian Laws (Geneva Convention) to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians not involved in the conflict. Therefore, all UN positions in South Lebanon were obligated to provide refuge to local civilians.

Officer Commanding of Fijibatt Charlie Company, Major Raumakita Valu, stated that some of his company positions provided refuge for the displaced locals.

“As directed by our Commanding Officer, we accommodated displaced locals at UN positions within Charlie Company AO titled Namoliwai, Ovalau, Lakeba and Ono”, he said.

He added that during the days of their refuge at all Charlie Company positions, Fijian peacekeepers had to give up their accommodations and bomb shelters to the civilians while they slept under company vehicles.

They also provided clothing and rations to the displaced civilians.

Although it was quite an uncomfortable experience to remain out in the open with the threat of artillery or aerial bombardments, however, Fijian peacekeepers were pleased to provide humanitarian assistance to local civilians.

Since it was an IDF military operation, all Lebanese civilians seeking humanitarian assistance were accepted at all UN Positions.

A total of one thousand four hundred and fifty four (1454) men, women and children were accommodated at all Fijibatt positions in South Lebanon.

Eight hundred (800) of these Lebanese displaced personnel were accommodated at UN Position 1 – 20, although the position was designed to accommodate only 200 UNIFIL peacekeepers.

The 800 displaced personnel were sheltered at 31 refuge points within Position 1 – 20, the Fijibatt Tactical Headquarters in Qana. Fijian peacekeepers had to seek shelter elsewhere within the position believing that the UN Position was safe from IDF bombardment.

The Qana Massacre

On 18th April 1996, while the 800 Lebanese civilians were content with their shelter and other humanitarian assistance provided at the Fijibatt Tactical Headquarters, Lebanese armed elements fired a total of eight (8) 120mm mortar rounds towards Israel.

Unfortunately, the mortar rounds were fired from approximately 215 meters Southwest of UN Position 1 – 20.

Apart from the civilian casualties, only four Fijibatt personnel based at UN Posn 1 – 20 were injured with no fatalities.

The Fijibatt casualties included the Fijibatt Regimental Medical Officer, 29113 Captain M. Seru who sustained critical shrapnel wounds to the top of his left arm causing major skin, muscle and bone damage and also suffered from shock.

27976 Captain S. Dakai sustained shrapnel wounds to three areas of his right arm also causing damages to his skin, muscle and bone. He also suffered from shock. 28826 Lance Corporal G.K. Bakoso sustained an injury from shrapnel that penetrated his lower back and upper left chest. 27122 Sapper I. Bulivou also sustained shrapnel injuries to his left arm. A fifth soldier was also injured.

It is highly likely that some soldiers may have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

The UN General Assembly decided that the $1.7 million cost of repairs to all UN Positions should be paid by Israel. An internal investigation report revealed that the extent of damages to Position 1 – 20 cost US$590, 629.00.

Ceasefire

The United Nations Security Council had called for a ceasefire on the 18th April 1996 in UN General Assembly Resolution 1052.

Hostilities ceased following the Israeli/Lebanese Ceasefire agreement. The agreement was announced at 1800 hrs on 26th April 1996 and became effective on 27th April 1996.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A week later all Fijibatt personnel were asked ten basic questions. Apparently some Fijibatt personnel appeared to have suffered from ‘Shell Shock’. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) team members sent to assess the Fijian peacekeepers mental status were surprised to observe the quick recovery of Fijian Peacekeepers from the traumatic incident.

Sentiments Before, During and After the Bombardment

Fijibatt personnel based at the UNIFIL Force Mobile Reserve (FMR) base and Fijibatt Engineers position both overlooking Position 1 – 20 were apprehensive as thick black smoke was seen rising above and hovering across the position and thought that their base may have been demolished as a result of the impact of the artillery rounds.

Sentiments of sadness echoed from the then FMR Platoon Commander Lt Jone Kalouniwai, now a Colonel in the RFMF, reminisced, “It was a horrifying experience to observe such an event from our position.”

Lieutenant Kalouniwai’s attempt to mobilise the Fijibatt Platoon with FMR to assist their comrades being bombarded at Position 1 – 20 was stopped by the Commanding Officer of the FMR.

“There was no thought for our safety or our lives but the deepening emptiness of our souls as the thought of loosing our fellow comrades on that particular day was so unbearable”. Lt Kalouniwai concluded.

The late Lieutenant Bale, Platoon Commander at Position 1 – 26 (Nairai) stated“…everybody was watching local TV inside the bomb shelter…..a few katysha rockets landed close to our perimeter then I heard Lieutenant Tuitubou (Now a Minister of the Government of Fiji) calling from his UN Vehicle ‘Oe sa lauvana o Qana (Hey Qana [Qana – meaning Posn 1 – 20] has been shelled), Isa sa mate na kai Viti, o Qana saraga sa kama tuya, Isa (Oh! Fijians are being killed, Qana is on fire)’…… I grabbed the direct line to Abu and shouted on the phone, ‘Abu tell IDF stop shooting, they have shot Qana, HQ Fijibatt is on fire.

After a few words of arguments between Lieutenant Bale and his SLA counterpart, Abu, in the presence of Hezbollah armed elements in Qana, the telephone conversation was over.

Several minutes later the bombardment stopped.“We watched TV in dismay and could not believe our eyes. This will be a mass death to our Fijian comrades, Oh God. Later following Cpl Moimoi’s suggestion, we sat down and prayed for our comrades and the rest was history as relayed to us by Cpl Lewaicei and Captain Dakai”.

Comments from Fijibatt Operations

Clerk, Corporal Mikaele Lewaicei who was on duty at Position 1 – 20, the day of bombardment, “There was chaos at Fijibatt Tac HQ that day, I had accompanied Captain Tikoduadua (Today a Minister in the Government of Fiji) at the Supplies rooftop watching armed elements firing katysha rockets towards Northern Israel at about 100 meters from our position”.

I had just returned to the Ops Cell when the IDF onslaught took place.

“All Fijibatt soldiers had sought shelter at gun pits and other areas during the bombardment since bomb shelters were crowded with Lebanese women and children.

Later, I saw our Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Waqanivavalagi walking into the Ops Cell looking so calm and confident”.

He was concerned with his injured men who were his first priority for medical evacuation to Naqoura (The UNIFIL HQ where the mission’s hospital was located).

The atmosphere at the Fijibatt Engineers position Nabuni and FMR was filled with silence and grief with the notion that no one could survive the attack….all was proven wrong…..

Thanks only four FijiBatt pers were injured on that day and none of us died.

The cleaning up at Position 1 – 20 was quite an emotional phase for the FijiBatt personnel based at position 1 – 20.

We had to pick up remains of Lebanese with our bare hands. We appreciate Warrant Officer Class One Vosa and Warrant Officer Class One Qalubau for their effort. Then came the crunch time where we had to go for Church service at the crumbled Tac HQ Church.

We sang the hymn ‘The King of Love My Shepherd is’. Tears of joy were rolling down our cheeks as we could not contain them. It was dark and the only light that shone was from the camera of the BBC TV crew. We thanked our Almighty Father for saving us on that fateful day.

Aftermath

When the horrifying bombardment was over a quick count revealed that more than a hundred local civilians died and five hundred injured with only five Fijian peacekeepers injured.

The Lebanese community in the area claimed that bodies of some dead Fijian soldiers were taken away or may have been hidden because they could not believe that the Fijian peacekeepers had survived the artillery barrage.

Corporal Lewaicei’s comment at Position 1 – 20 then echoed once again “After the bombardment I find refuge and pray Psalms 91 for all soldiers who were at UN Position 1 – 20, the Fijibatt Tac HQ that day 18th April 1996. For those who have passed on to the new life May your souls rest in peace”.

Feedback: newsroomb@fijisun.com.fj

 




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