For U.N. troops, sanity is where you can find it


FIJI UNITED NATIONS POST, Southern Lebanon -- It seemed a little odd that the Ghanaian major would salute with a "meow" when he passed a guard, and the soldier would bark in response.

But southern Lebanon is a place where nothing is as it should be and normalcy is a fractured art.

A few miles south, across the border, Israeli schoolchildren in bathing suits play on the frothy edge of the Mediterranean. The sea is calm, and blue and inviting.

Here, men wear flak jackets and helmets and the deceptive tranquillity of their routine includes daily licks of war.

This is a no-man's land, with a bewildering array of actors enmeshed in a perplexing variety of plots. Here, groups representing Syria vie with those fronting for Iran to join with Palestinians to fight Israelis and other Lebanese, separated by a United Nations force made up of another 10 nationalities.

No wonder the Fijian soldier barks at the meowing Ghanaian major. It is a little joke in a language they both understand. Both are part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The "interim" has lasted 14 years. Nobody knows when it will end.

The Ghanaian major meows because Ghanaians eat cats. The Fijian barks because his people have a reputation for eating dogs. This is explained with some glee by the major's Norwegian sidekick.

"Some Ghanaians eat cats," corrects the major. But he launches into a suspiciously spirited justification of the practice. "Cats are just four-legged animals. In some countries they eat horses, some countries, cows. What's the difference? Why should we limit ourselves to chickens?"

Such cultural potholes are common here, as a day spent with the two officers reveals. Rules prohibit release of their names.

The problem this day is a house rented by U.N. forces while the owner was in Africa. The owner has died, and local custom requires the body to be laid out in the home while the family mourns.

The mourning may last seven or 40 days; no one is sure. The U.N. men cannot stay there with a body in the living room, but there is no other place to put the post, or the body.

"It's a problem," says the Norwegian. He went to see the mayor in the village. But the mayor turns out to be married to a cousin of the grieving family, and the conversation "was not pleasant," the major reports. "I got the impression he was threatening us."

Not to worry, says Hassan, a Lebanese interpreter. He jumps out to talk to the mayor. The mayor's house is pocked with shrapnel gouges and bullet holes: the usual decor here.

Hassan returns. "It's a problem," he concludes.

The jeep lurches off on another chore. The UNIFIL posts are a buffer between Israeli forces and their opponents. It is a buffer much abused. The two sides routinely shell each other, seemingly oblivious to the U.N. force.

One unfriendly group is the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The group was said to be responsible for kidnapping most of the Western hostages in Lebanon, attacking the Marine compound in Beirut in 1983, and hanging a U.S. Marine colonel attached to the United Nations.

The U.N. jeep bumps through a village named Siddiqine, and it is clear this is Hezbollah country. Nearly every house has posters of Sheik Abbas Musawi, the Hezbollah leader whose death in an air attack by Israelis in February set off a spasm of counterattacks.

In such a village, it is wise for outsiders not to attract attention.

This is where the U.N. jeep runs out of gas.

The Ghanaian major looks at the Norwegian. They look at the gas gauge, which is on empty. They look at the fueling log in the jeep. They look at the odometer. They conclude the jeep is out of gas.

"It's a problem," says the major.

The jeep has come to a rest across from the house of a young bearded man of perfect Hezbollah age. An Iranian flag is visible inside. He comes out to eye the vehicle warily. A jeep full of non-Arabs parked across from his house is not a good sign. It is unclear who is more nervous.

Shortly, a man who knows the U.N. soldiers comes by. He is a member of Amal, a bitter rival of Hezbollah until they recently made peace. He offers to get gas, and returns with a filled jerrycan. The jeep is on its way.

As it returns to the Fiji post, the Ghanaian major meows.

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