Kaptein Amit Sharma (25) tjenestegjorde i Indias Second Battalion, Fourth Ghurkha regiment i UNIFIL og forteller i denne artikkelen om sitt møte med Sør-Libanon og UNIFIL. IBL ES SAQI, Occupied South Lebanon , Nov 24 (IPS) - Captain Amit Sharma says he feels a tinkling in his heart at the thought that by the end of this month he will leave behind an eerie place, marked by the awkward atmosphere of occupation.
By Kim Ghattas
Sharma, 25, came to Lebanon a year ago with the 670-strong Indian army's Second Battalion, Fourth Ghurkha regiment, serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil). They replaced a Norwegian battalion, which served with Unifil since the peacekeeping force was created in 1978.
Poorer than the Norwegians, the Indians have not contributed much to the local economy, but have gained a higher reputation when it comes to help and protect the population - and enforce rules upon Israeli forces.
''I feel part of Lebanon, I feel I belong here now,'' said Sharma. ''I went back to India for a month during my year here, I was watching TV at home and there was a Lebanese singer I recognised, I realised I had missed Lebanon, it was great to come back,'' he added.
Sharma read a lot on Lebanon. His interest in the country and the mission seem even more obvious when in a drive after nightfall, he is able to correctly point out all villages in the distance and name them.
''I didn't feel I was away from home, our two cultures are very alike. Except for the language, there isn't much difference,'' said Sharma.
''When I learned that I was going to be sent to Lebanon, the first thing I did was look at a map to localise it exactly,'' said Major Raqesh Pedram, 29, head of the battalion's engineering unit ''I still remembered Lebanon as a war-country from watching the news, but I had also heard that it was the Paris of the Orient.''
''I expected war with bombs raining all around our positions, lots of lengthy tedious mine clearing. This is far quieter than what we face at home,'' said Pedram. ''Also we know that we are not the target and warfare technology is better here, better targeted,'' he added.
The war in south Lebanon is a war of attrition by local guerrilla Hizballah to drive out Israel, which occupies a strip of south Lebanon since 1978. Except for occasional large-scale operations by the Israelis, warfare is low in intensity.
Unlike all other battalions of Unifil which are deployed outside the Israeli-controlled area (ICA), the Indians' area of deployment falls inside the ICA and is therefore not subject to daily Israeli shelling.
But they witness mainly road-side bombs against Israelis and their allies, the South Lebanese army. The Israelis determined the limits and size of the occupied zone when they withdrew in 1985.
Yet danger and fear of the occupier are still on the agenda for the locals and the Indian battalion (Indbatt) seems to have gone a step further than the Norwegians in its peacekeeping.
''The Israelis had become used to driving through Unifil checkpoints without showing their ID. But we've made it clear that they have to abide by the rules,'' said information officer, Azad Ruhail.
The Indians also added a third company in their area of deployment, based in the remote village of Shebaa, in the mountains, to improve observation and control over their area and also reassure inhabitants of Shebaa where incidents were common. They also reused roads, which the Norwegians had given up driving on.
But things didn't look that easy when the Indians first arrived in Lebanon last year. They were not cheered by a community whose income depends largely on peace-keepers' spending. - local restaurants and shops had grown used to the presence of the well-paid Norwegians for 21 years.
When word came out that the Indians were to replace the Norwegians, local shopkeepers complained openly about having a third-world country sent to their town for a peace-keeping mission.
Fears have been expressed at the increasing tendency for peacekeeping missions to be exclusively made up of developing countries with no weight in international politics. In Lebanon, Ireland and Finland are the two only industrial countries still serving today, along with battalions from Ghana, Nepal, Fiji,.
But in the absence of international political determination to fulfil Unifil's mandate - oversee the withdrawal of the Israeli army from south Lebanon - what matters most about Unifil's role is the humanitarian assistance it gives to locals.
''The Indians are more open, more hospitable, we socialise more with them then with the Norwegians who were a bit cold,'' said one villager, in Shebaa. ''But what we want is to feel safe, without Unifil I wouldn't stay here, so in the end it doesn't' really matter from where the soldiers are.''
For commanding officer Colonel Guru Saday Batabyal, 'it was obvious that with the coming of a new force their would be some apprehension. We are here for the people, we do our bit and we hope we are of enough assistance to them.'
To remind the Lebanese of the first Indian battalion to serve in Lebanon, the Mahatma Ghandi Park was built in the town, under the supervision of Major Pedram and inaugurated in October. The locals have already taken to sitting on the park's benches to enjoy the afternoon sun.
To remind them of the good times they spent in Lebanon, officers already know what they will be taking back home with them. 'A gallon of arak (local aniseed drink) homemade by a Lebanese friend and two bottles of olive oil' for engineer Pedram and 'a video of Lebanese belly dancing and sweet memories' for Lebanon lover, Sharma. (END/IPS)
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