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Salah’s Story

text by Jeannette Isaac
photos by John Isaac


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It’s a great day for a parade. The sun is shining. The sky is calm and sprinkled with puffs of billowy white clouds. A band is tuning up in the distance, and at the sound all eyes turn – eagerly anticipating an unusal spectacle.

Unusual, because this is war-torn Lebanon, and it is not just any ordinary band that is marching, but the United Nations band from Fiji. As part of the UN’s Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), it is the Fiji contingent’s turn for a medal day parade.

This parade has particular significance for a nine-year-old Lebanese orphan boy named Salah. The Fiji battalion has unofficially “adopted” Salah, and Major Eddy Heffernon – the second in command – has become Salah’s best friend. Wherever Eddy goes, Salah goes, and people have become accustomed to a small shadow following the soft-spoken major.

Earlier, Salah watched Eddy and the other Fiji soldiers prepare a huge barbeque pit where they will roast a favorite national pork dish after the parade.

Now, perched on a pair of hefty soldiers, Salah strains to glimpse his major marching down the street. He can’t wait to see Eddy dressed in his colorful native costume, singing songs from his beautiful Pacific island – and all here in Southern Lebanon!

Half of Fiji’s 1200 man army is assigned to Lebanon, and although UNIFIL is made up of soldiers from many different countries, the Fijians occupy one of the highest combat areas, and have suffered the highest casualties.

As Major Heffernon’s good friend, Salah has special privileges. The envy of all his schoolmates, he is free to come and go on the UN compound without passing through the routine checkpoint. He mingles with the soldiers. He is allowed to ride in their jeeps, eat in the officer’s mess, and even occasionally sleep overnight in the barracks.

Recently, a UN film crew arrived from New York to do a story on the UNIFIL forces. Since they had heard about Salah, they went to the village of Qana where the Fiji battalion was stationed. Salah speaks broken English, and it wasn’t long before he was following the film crew around and serving as their translator. Once, while riding in a jeep bearing UN insignia, Salah and the crew passed a group of children playing by the side of the road. As they drove by, the children waved, saying something in Arabic, and the crew, thinking they were being friendly, waved back. Suddenly, Salah screamed out a curse in English, adding “You better shut up!” He immediately received a cuff on the ear, and it was only after he translated what had been said that the crew realized Salah had only come to their defense. Needless to say, Salah has been included in the film on the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Lebanon.

Salah has enjoyed the parade and all the festivities, and as the day draws to a close, he considers it a huge success. It seems to him that the different warring factions have granted a day of rest and peace. The marching music, the colorful flags, the delicious aromas – all contribute to an unforgettable experience in the young boy’s life.

Now Salah, no longer able to contain himself, darts into the midst of the lingering soldiers and grabs Major Eddy’s hand. After all, this is his battalion, and Eddy is his best friend.

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Jeannette Isaac is a freelance writer. Her husband John is a photographer for the United Nations.



Tags: Lebanon Reflections/Inspirational