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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 April 2007, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
UN's 30-year quest for Lebanon peace
By Paul Adams
BBC News, Lebanon

In the volatile border zone in southern Lebanon, sandwiched between Israel and Hezbollah, UN troops are continuing their perilous work to build peace.

Badly bombed city in Lebanon
Many towns in southern Lebanon were left in ruins last summer

Unifil is the UN's interim force in Lebanon. Ironic, when you bear in mind that it has been there for almost 30 years.

In the Middle East, very little is ever interim. The problems have a way of persisting.

Qana is a town of memorials. The largest, a collection of tomb-like slabs, marks the spot where more than 100 civilians were killed by Israeli shell fire 11 years ago.

But next to it stands a monument to dozens of Fijian peacekeepers killed on Unifil duty.

It is not the only cenotaph of its kind in southern Lebanon. More than 250 UN peacekeepers have died since 1978.

It is humbling to be reminded that soldiers have come here from all corners of the globe in a prolonged attempt to bring order to southern Lebanon.

When I accompanied a patrol close to the Israeli border, I learned that Ghana was among the first countries to send troops and that practically everyone in the Ghanaian army has served in Lebanon at one time or another.

And what for? How has this interim force actually improved the lives of the Lebanese?

When you survey the wreckage of past wars, you do find yourself wondering why these dedicated men and women came here, why they laid down their lives.

Sometimes, it seems to be Unifil's unfortunate fate merely to be stuck in the middle, unable to stop the periodic upheavals that have punctuated life here.

Bombed outpost

UN concrete building. U of United still upright. The N of nations lying on its side.
The UN's observation post has been partially demolished in Khiam
Nowhere is this more graphically illustrated than at Khiam, over to the east.

Four unarmed observers - from Finland, Canada, Austria and China - were killed when the UN's observation post was bombed to smithereens by Israel at the height of last summer's fighting.

Israel apologised, saying it was a mistake, but eight months on, UN personnel barely conceal their contempt.

Our obliging Italian helicopter pilot made several passes for us. As we circled low, I saw where a section of the outposts' concrete blast walls, whitewashed in typical UN style, stood partially demolished: the U of United still upright, the N of nations lying on its side.

A few days later, we drove to the site. Personal effects lie scattered in the wreckage which, for some reason, has yet to be cleared away. A book about Helsinki's cultural attractions, a box of Chinese tea, a novel in German.

Broken fragments of the UN's blue and white logo have been propped up by the front gate.

The whole devastated, eerie site stands as an eloquent symbol of the international community's frequent impotence in the face of conflict.

Getting on with the job

The UN is acutely aware of its reputation and knows that should Israel and Hezbollah decide to go at it again, there is little Unifil will be able to do to stop them.

But for the moment, despite the oft-heard sentiment that war is bound to break out again this summer, this seems a remote prospect. Neither side has the appetite for a fight, at least for now.

UN's blue and white logo lies broken by the gate
Fragments of the UN's blue and white logo lie by the front gate
And so Unifil gets on with its job - reinstalling markers along the so-called Blue Line, indicating the approximate position of the Israeli-Lebanese border, getting rid of unexploded weaponry, helping, through what the military like to call "quick impact projects", to repair bits of Lebanon's infrastructure, and patrolling, lots and lots of patrolling.

In the warm spring sunshine, carpets of flowers waving in the breeze on the rocky slopes, the pungent smell of orange blossom overpowering among the citrus groves, it all seems idyllic enough. And, for the most part, all is quiet.

But in towns which still bear the scars of last summer's fighting, there are sullen, cold looks from young men, Hezbollah fighters - or at least supporters - who resent the fact that for the first time in years, the organisation is having to keep the lowest of low profiles, a result of August's UN resolution and the subsequent ceasefire.

Hearts and minds

Soldiers teaching yoga
Soldiers from the Punjab Regiment teach yoga at a primary school
No-one can doubt Unifil's commitment.

Some of its contingents have, over the years, found novel ways to win hearts and minds - running free medical clinics, organising computer classes, reaching out to the local population.

In the Druze village of Faradis, young men from the 1st Battalion, the Punjab Regiment, are teaching yoga at a primary school - a bizarre spectacle, but the kids clearly love it and the headmistress is enthusiastic.

After last summer's war, she told me, the children were tense and fearful. Now, thanks to these Indian soldiers, they are happier, better able to concentrate in class.

But all the while, on either side, armies are getting ready for the next round - Israel shoring up its defences, Hezbollah preparing new positions just outside Unifil's area of responsibility.

It will not happen this year, or even next year, but few doubt that without some significant change in the dynamics of the region, it will happen again at some point in the future. And when it does, the UN's interim force will find itself, once again, a bystander.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 14 April, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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