On March 11 1978, eleven Palestinian terrorists attacked a bus a few kilometres north of Tel Aviv. During the event, 48 people died.
Two days later, Israel invaded Lebanon in what became known as Operation Litani. On March 18, Security Council resolution 425 created UNIFIL, The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, a peacekeeping mission to be stationed in the conflict zone. Norway was supposed to send a battalion by the name of NORBATT.
Donning a professional mask
This is the setup of a new Norwegian documentary, Letters From South Lebanon. It all went very fast, and the young soldiers assigned to the task had very little time to take in this very sudden and dramatic change in their lives.
«Just before Easter in 1978, the Norwegian government decided to send Norwegian soldiers to South Lebanon», remembers Reidar Bjørn Melhuus.
In January of that year, he signed a contract with the Norwegian UN contingency force, meaning he could be mobilized for an international task. He served in the Finnmark, close to the border with the USSR, and those with a contract were called for a meeting with the base commander.
«He gave us a clear order to sign up for the Lebanon task on the first weekday after Easter.»
Another conscript, Charles Røed, had married recently and had an eleven-month-old son. But like the others, he donned a professional mask and did his best to hide his anxiety.
This documentary’s core story is the feeling of almost non-acceptance of their deeds.
For very real
The Norwegian contingent arrived by US Airforce planes at a base in Northern Israel, and from there, they crossed into Lebanon. Melhuus was part of a small force to guard Khardala, a bridge across the Litani river. Their equipment consisted of a Carl Gustav rocket launcher – without ammunition – and several lighter weapons. They wore plastic helmets and no bulletproof vests.
A small Swedish force had already been sent to Lebanon from their regular positions in the Gaza Strip, and they told about how a colleague had lost his life after his vehicle had struck a landmine. Little by little, the Norwegians started to grasp that this was for real, for very real.
In the morning, they went out to clear mines placed during the night on the roads they were supposed to patrol.
«You find nothing as dark as a Lebanese night», says another one. During night watch stints, you heard sounds out there. Was it human activity or just roaming animals?
One dark night in April, they were told from headquarters that Syrian forces might attack them in the area around the village of Kaoukaba. It was decided to evacuate the posts, but a few men were supposed to stay back to «represent» the UN in the village. Twelve men were left behind in the dark, and Melhuus says that they considered it a last goodbye.
Nothing happened. In general, there were episodes in their sector, but few were serious. Among their tasks was monitoring a small PLO force camped nearby. They kept their distance, but one summer day, they started shooting at the Norwegians. One soldier was wounded.
Nobody to talk to
“When we returned home in September, the first ones to meet us were the customs officers», remarks Reidar Bjørn Melhuus. “They were making sure that we did not bring in more alcohol or tobacco than we were allowed to.
Actually, they were left outside in the freezing cold in order to serve as test cases for young customs trainees. «This is what they did to us after 6 months in Lebanon», says one of them.
There was very little official recognition of their effort as peacekeepers. The homecoming soldiers were very much left to themselves and had nobody to talk to about their experience.
This documentary’s core story is the feeling of almost non-acceptance of their deeds. Over the many years since, almost 26,000 Norwegians have done stints wearing the blue berets in South Lebanon, and a considerable number live on in civilian life with psychological damages and traumas of different kinds.
Of course, this is not an exclusive problem for Norway. But in Norway, a calm and affluent place, the contrast seemed huge, and only a few of them had friends willing to listen. They say that after a few months at home, the memories from Lebanon started to fade, and that might be the real problem. Because now, more than 40 years later, those memories are still in there, and they start coming out, but mostly the bad ones.