By: Bert Kleine Schaars
Suddenly, through social media, you come across photos from your past that you didn't even know existed. It becomes extra special when you also speak to the person who took those photographs after almost 35 years. There were many of us in Lebanon, of which unfortunately there are also some that you can never speak to again. When you see the pictures, it feels like yesterday. We experienced beautiful, impressive but also intense moments there and yet the memory is truly beautiful. For me, the latter is mainly due to the camaraderie that was already very strong at the time. For me, seeing the pictures, and the renewed contact with the mates of that time leads to writing a book, building my own Nekaf Jeep and to a reunion with the country itself.
Our Lebanon trip was special in every-way. After a first night in the heart of Beirut; on Monday; we visited the temples of Baalbek. Our guide, who is an archaeologist himself, has shown and told us a huge amount. What an incredibly beautiful complex mega big and impressive country!
In the meantime, we enjoyed lebanese cuisine from the time we arrived. So many delicious dishes.
Day 2. We started the real purpose of the trip, the journey along the memory lane of our mission, now, 38 years ago. It was a great day in southern Lebanon. A short trip via the coastal road, and a first introduction to the former Unifil area of the Charlie. Through various checkpoints we first drove to Naqoura, the Unifil headquarters. which has become a huge complex in the meantime. With approval documents we drove through various gates onto the site, looking for the reception committee. After some searching and telephone calls, we finally got in touch with Cynthia, a Dutch major at Unifil. Incidentally, the only Dutch person at Unifil. Then two Dutch men, in Lebanon as observers, joined us. After much explanation about the current mission, we were all offered a delicious lunch in the French restaurant overlooking the sea.
After lunch we respectfully stood post at the Unifil monument to the fallen soldiers of this mission, that has been on going for 40 years. Then we visited the conference room in the headquarters and briefly occupied the seats of, among others, the force commander.
Next we left for the first post that everyone knew: 7-17. The building was still there to our delight. The surprise was great when we saw what kind of palace was built next to it. The contrast could not be greater. Immediately after we got off the coach, there was a traffic jam of residents who all stopped and came to greet us. Their enthusiasm was tremendous!
Then directly to Al Mansouri where we had a very friendly welcome. We were all invited to come 'shab shaien', drink tea with the headmaster of that time long ago. His whole family was waiting for us on the terrace of his house. Their thanks was expressed several times for our interaction as Dutch people with them all those years ago. People are still happy about it. Even young boys in the village proudly show us pictures of our time there on their phones.
Day 3. The day of laughter and tears. This day started with a tour via Qana to Haris. In Qana we visited the rock sculptures or relief figures from around the beginning of our era. It was impressive to see the Virgin Mary and Jesus with his apostles among other reliefs.
We lit a candle to commemorate the deceased from our own time at the nearby shelter cave. We also visited the place where, according to tradition, Jesus turned water into wine. I never knew that this place was a stone's throw away from the road on which I drove to Haris so often in 1980.
Of course, while in Qana we also visited the monument, placed for the more than 200 victims of the bombings of the UN post in 1996 and 2006. You become silent in this place, with the remains of a tank as a relic and a mosque as a monument built over the graves.
Then on to Haris, where we were extensively checked by the Lebanese army at a checkpoint. They checked our papers and passports by telephone consultation. But our permit was in order.
Following this we made a pit stop at the petrol station of Speedy Haris. It was a feast of recognition. We were allowed to leave again with the promise to come back 1 hour later, after the visit to Haris, to have lunch together.
Haris was really recognizable in many places driving through the main street. The old battalion headquarters were still there. And once again we spoke to young people who carry photos of Unifil from that time on their mobile and are proud of them.
Back at Speedy the mood could not be better. He spontaneously arranged for us an insanely good tasting lunch that we ate together with him. We just couldn't eat it all, therefore a lot of dishes went with us on the bus.
Before leaving, after having decorated Speedy with a Unifil pin and taking a group photo, we invited him to the reunion 40 years Unifil.
Via the former road under construction, which has now been paved, we then drove to Majdel Zoun.It seemed like an entry!. Advantage of the Lebanese permit? Maybe so, because we went with police escort with flashing lights up the mountain to the village. That was very special. From the post 7-4 there is nothing left other than the view. Here also were many people waiting for us. And yes, here too were the old photos on phones. Memories came back through stories about film screenings that we had projected on the walls of the prefab. Because it was outside at the time, youngsters could enjoy it from behind the barbed wire.
After taking many pictures of the view of the upper posts and Tyre we received another invitation to drink tea in one of the now beautiful houses next to the post. It was an emotional meeting. With the 25 people we drank tea with, there was an old lady of 90. Her son, told our interpreter, he had to translate a message from her to us. She told us that people are still happy with the deployment of the Dutch soldiers back then. They gave the population peace and a sense of security. They are still very grateful to us for it. That is also the story they have been telling their children for decades.
Believe me, when you hear something like that, as a group of grown men, you shoot full and tears just come. One sobs just a little louder than the other. So nice to hear that. It may confirm what you always hoped to hear, but what no one ever told you. What an insanely beautiful moment!
When we finally leave, again with the police car with flashing lights in front, there is silence in the bus, but also a huge grin on our faces. When we then descend the mountain in the dark towards the coast, the bus is stopped again at 7-17. We have to drink tea again with a family. That's what we'll do for a while... And again a party with tea, coffee and delicious fresh fruit. We even sing the song a few times: "O pine tree", as an accomplished Unifil men's choir. The reason? Not everything is different after 38 years.... the power still fails regularly here.
Day 4. The third day in the Charlie area. We thought we could see the whole series of Charlie posts in just two days. But 'just' didn't work out. It was either drinking shai, or chatting for a long time. Now it is coffee and chatting. The route from 7-1 to 7-6 Charlie on day 3 was easy, but here again we found a complete development of the area.
What can be found of these posts is .... actually nothing. But what is there? 7-1 is now a Lebanese post and off limits. And of course there is the castle of Shama. Upon arrival, several men stood together. They were curious and wanted to know exactly what we had come for. Having a Lebanese guide and driver with you is most convenient then. Unfortunately there was little left from 7-1 and 7-2, 7-3, 7-5 and 7-6c but again the meetings were great. Gratitude everywhere.
We then looked at how we to get to the coastal road as soon as possible, where we went in search of a nice accessible place on the beach to complete the circle, with a copy of the book; Lebanon 1980 holiday country, intended for our guide. In my opinion, the handover had to be done there. After all, the photo that I had used for the cover of our book was also taken there.
This was also the time to say goodbye to our buddy Henry who had to go home a few days earlier. But not before our own wreath laying at the Unifil monument in Tyre. With respect and silence we laid flowers there. Then we visited the excavations of the old town in Tyre and walked through the Christian quarter, to finally end up tired but satisfied in the hotel, and toast to another fantastic day.
Day 5. The time comes to leave Tyre behind us. Friday morning started with breakfast and check-out at the Platinum Hotel. The first stop: 400 meters away! Because there lies the city of Necropolis from Roman times and from the Phoenicians. From these excavations we looked at the hotel that we had left just before. Please note that Tyre Baracks is located opposite the hotel. Lion and I looked at each other several times. We mentioned to each other that in 1980 we didn't know that, while driving this route several times a week in 1980, these ruins were so close. Otherwise we would certainly have taken a look at it at that time. The necropolis of Al-Bass Tyre is a Lebanese UNESCO World Heritage Site with a special collection of sarcophagi and many different burial chambers. It is very impressive to walk around. And then to think that not everything has been uncovered yet because the site also continues under the current road and adjacent neighbourhood. But as with many excavations in Lebanon, the continuation costs a lot of money and that is simply not there at the moment. You walk under a huge triumphal arch. It indicates how immensely large this city must have been in the past.
A little further on is the Hippodrome. The largest the Romans ever built. Circumfrance is almost 900 meters and some parts of the stands are still there. That helps to show how colossal this complex has been.
After this visit we drove a long way into the mountains to almost 1100 meters altitude. We went to Mleeta, the Hezbollah museum. Once at the top the weather changed a bit and it rained slightly and it was foggy. It matched the atmosphere of the museum. We were given a young guide who voluntarily contributes to the museum 1 day a week as a guide and told us the story of Hezbollah very passionately and convincingly. About the history of the place and the museum. And admittedly, there was a special atmosphere.
When we left, the weather also changed and soon the sun was shining. We drove to the next stop, Sidon; with the sea castle. Once belonging tothe Crusaders, and after conquest, the round dome on top is witness to an Islamic prayer room. In the courtyard we have real coffee, served from an old copper coffee pot. The ladies were served coffee, accompanied by a red rose!
Afterwards we visited the centuries-old souk opposite. Wonderful to walk around there. It was as if time had stood still with the bakery and butcher, but the mopeds and scooters that pass us in the narrow streets are all electric.
After the souk we visited an ancient inn or as the guide said: the camel drive-in of that time. Then on the way to Beirut, and again checked in at hotel Commodore for the last two days. Immediately after checking in we all went into the city to eat. It was a bit of a search but we ended up somewhere in a courtyard in the middle of the city of Beirut with a pleasant temperature. It is a good place to be and during dinner we see the Dutch football team take the lead on a TV.
It was another great day. Apart from the personal encounters, we saw much of the beautiful culture of the country. It really feels like we've been here for a month. So many impressions and so much we have seen of the rich history, thanks to our guide George Farah. He taught us a lot about the history of Lebanon.
Day 6. First we walked along the boulevard of Beirut and stopped at the Rivièra Hotel, well known to many Unifillers. Neither did we want to miss the National museum in Beirut. There are many treasures to be seen from the time of the Phoenicians, we had heard much about already in Baalbek and Tyre.
Later that day we visited the caves of Jeita. They are breathtakingly beautiful and definitely worth seeing. At sunset we visited the Lady of Lebanon in Harissa from where we had phenominal views over the coast from Beirut to Byblos.... wonderful!!
Day 7. was the day we had to say goodbye to this beautiful country and to George, and our fantastic bus driver Afif, but before that we had a whole day to see more of Beirut with its impressive traces of the war and reconstruction. It was another impressive day. All in all, it was an unforgettable week in Lebanon. The hospitality and love with which we were received by the people in the Charlie area was overwhelming. The gratitude they showed to the men was beautiful and addressed to all Dutch Unifillers. I wish all Unifillers this first-line recognition, and therefore hope to be able to organize many more of these trips.