'My baby brother was killed within a week of his second tour of Lebanon'

Members of the Defence Forces serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon had to dodge warring militias, tank fire, and fanatical bombmakers. Neil Michael spoke to some of the families of the 47 who died in the region
'My baby brother was killed within a week of his second tour of Lebanon'

Ann Lenehan, at her home near Ballyhaunis in Mayo, with a picture and the medals and beret of her late brother Billy Kedian, who was killed in the Lebanon. Picture: Paul Mealey

Ann Lenehan remembers only too well the last thing her younger brother Billy said to her. Standing in the driveway of her home in Galway, she was waving him off.

Private Billy Kedian was about to be driven away in his other sister Mary’s car on his way to Dublin Airport. From there, he was to catch a flight with other members of the Defence Forces for what was his second tour of duty with the UN in Lebanon.

Although his mother Doris, father Billy Snr, and two siblings were more comfortable about him going abroad because nothing of concern had happened in his first tour, they still didn’t like to see him go.

As tears started to well up in Ann’s eyes, Billy told her: “Don’t you dare cry, Annie, I’ll be fine.”

Although she received a letter from him a short while after he arrived in the camp he shared with other United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers, tragically it was his last letter home. He was dead within a week.

He had been killed during an attack on a compound where he was serving, near a small town called Tibnine, where the Lebanese speak English with Dublin accents.

A photo Ann treasures of her late brother, Private Billy Kedian.
A photo Ann treasures of her late brother, Private Billy Kedian.

Medical teams were immediately sent from the Irish battalion headquarters at Camp Shamrock at Tibnine, and from the UNIFIL headquarters on the coast at Naqoura.

Ann found out early on the morning of May 31, 1999, when herself and her husband Michael were woken with loud knocking to their front door.

Her husband answered the door.

Standing in front of him was the local parish priest and a soldier in uniform from the local barracks at Dún Ui Mhaoilíosa (Renmore) Barracks, in Galway.

Ann, who could hear hushed voices, couldn’t help but wonder who it might be.

“The voices stopped, and I could hear my husband’s footsteps coming back to the bedroom,” she recalls.

“My heart was pounding when he appeared at the door.

“He said I needed to get up and come to the front door as there were some people there who needed to speak to me.

As soon as I saw them standing there looking at me, I knew why they were there.

“They may have said something because I remember their mouths opening but I don’t remember what they said.

“To be honest, they didn’t even need to have said anything because I just knew.

“I was floored. We all were. It was just devastating to hear he had died.”

The men bearing the bad news had come early because news Billy had died at around 5am that morning and the story was going to break on the 8am news.

“They wanted to make sure we heard it first from them rather than from the radio,” she said.

“It’s all a bit of a blur now because we were all so young, but it took about another week for us to get Billy’s body back. I’ll never forget it.

“We were standing in the pouring rain on the tarmac as his plane taxied near where we were standing.

“Then his coffin was brought out and we walked alongside it as it was brought to the terminal building.”

Billy was, Ann recalls, the “baby of the family”. He turned out to be a gentleman, someone who worked hard, and who was also quiet, funny, and kind.

He wanted to be a soldier from the time he was really small. That was all he ever wanted to do.

So, when everyone else was making plans for CAOs and everything else, Billy knew exactly what he wanted, and he went into the Army then in 1996.

On his first tour of Lebanon, she says: “He enjoyed it and I think he was quite happy nothing unforeseen came off and he was so proud to be there, and he wanted to go back, and he did go back.

“We weren’t as worried about him on the second tour as we were on the first because he’d been there and done that and everything was fine.

“The men and women he served with were like a family to him and being in the army was always what he wanted to do.

"He died doing what he wanted to do. So that was some comfort, I suppose, in the end, you know, because he wouldn’t have died doing anything else."

Ann was brought over to Lebanon a year after he died and visited the spot where he was died.

At the time, it was a barren area strewn with a mixture of rocks, rubble, and pieces of shrapnel.

“It was very emotional and overwhelming to walk on the same ground he had walked on when he served and died in that post,” she explains.

Ann Lenehan: 'He died doing what he loved, so I take some comfort in that.'
Ann Lenehan: 'He died doing what he loved, so I take some comfort in that.'

The details of her brother’s death are not details that she dwells on.

But they are the reason why Billy’s is one of 47 names on a memorial stone that sits in a small tree-lined, low stone wall enclosure in Tibnine.

The stone commemorates the deaths of 46 members of the Irish Defence Forces who served in Lebanon with UNIFIL.

There is also another name on the stone, that of Comdt Michael Nestor, who was killed while serving with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation.

With UNIFIL just passing its 44th anniversary, the mission’s death toll is, as of January 14, 2022, among its soldiers from all nations, some 324 fatalities since the peacekeeping mission started in March 1978.

It was launched to oversee the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, a country it had invaded in retaliation for the Coastal Road massacre near Tel Aviv when Palestinian gunmen hijacked a bus and killed 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children.

Israeli retaliation led to the deaths of around 2,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, and the effective withdrawal from southern Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

When Private Billy Kedian was killed 21 years later in May 1999, he was with 17 other Irish troops in an armed UN compound made up of a series of reinforced concrete bunkers known as Post 642.

At the time, the Irish battalion he was serving with had been deliberately targeted two previous times in preceding months.

Just after 5am on the morning of May 31, 1999, shelling broke out between Lebanese militia and Israeli-backed militia, South Lebanon Army.

The first shell fired in the early hours of May 31 hit an area controlled by the SLA, that was about 1km from Post 642.

A shell fired in retaliation landed just 15 metres away from the Irish position.

As the Irish UNIFIL soldiers woke up, realised they were under attack and ran for their shelters, a second mortar round slammed into the centre of their compound within a minute of the first.

Private Kedian was running from door to door of his fellow soldiers to make sure they were all awake when he was hit by the blast.

Medics who rushed to the compound were too late to save Billy, while two other Irish soldiers were injured in the incident.

Murphy family: 'Our Aonghus was murdered and we never got any justice'

Conal Murphy, Tuam, who lost his brother Aonghus in 1986. Picture: Ray Ryan
Conal Murphy, Tuam, who lost his brother Aonghus in 1986. Picture: Ray Ryan

The Murphys, who have a long history of service with the UN, have also lost a family member.

Before Major General Kevin Murphy, from Co Kildare, retired, he had served as both quartermaster general and adjutant general of the Defence Forces.

Two of his three sons joined the Defence Forces — Conal, who rose to the rank of commandant, and Aonghus, who rose to the rank of lieutenant.

Conal, who served in Lebanon in 1984, said: “The UNIFIL mission they have now is different to the mission that was there when we were there.

“They are in a different area, for example.

“They’re over near the Syrian and Israeli Lebanon border or near enough on the border I think.

“Whereas we were in South Lebanon itself and the PLO were patrolling into Israel to attack Israel and we were trying to stop them if you like.

“And then you had the south Lebanese army, which was Israeli-backed and they would be anti the PLO. So we were kind of occupying an area and patrolling it and trying to bring stability, which I think we achieved.”

Aonghus was killed on August 21, 1986, while serving with 59 Infantry Battalion UNIFIL and is another of the names on the memorial stone in honour of Defence Forces soldiers who died serving for UNIFIL.

He had been deliberately blown up on the road between the villages of Haddathah and At-Tiri by an improvised explosive device (IED).

His death left an indelible mark on the family he left behind, especially his parents.

To his father, it would see him agonising over whether or not he had done the right thing as a father to encourage their careers in the Defence Forces.

Conal says of his father: “I would say he probably questioned the idea that he encouraged us to do our jobs to the best of our ability.

“That was in one part, but the other part was, he was a very proud army officer himself. And he had been overseas so many times and gave great service to the army.

“And so there was a dilemma between being a father on one side, and a professional soldier on the other.

“My dad had good experiences overseas himself.”

That Aonghus’ murderer was never brought to justice is something that not only rankles with the Murphy family but is also a common strand with a lot of the families of those who died serving with UNIFIL.

“It was a very big issue with my dad,” Conal says of the failure to bring to justice those responsible for his 25-year-old brother’s death.

“It kind of consumed him to a certain extent . . . the fact that nobody was brought to justice. We felt that it was best left alone because, as he got older, he would get so upset.

There certainly is a gap in the whole thing for us and for other families who lost loved ones — we didn’t get any justice.

The man blamed for his death is Jawad Kasfi, who was described in barrister Frank Callanan’s report into the murder of three other Irish UNIFIL soldiers three years later in 1989, as a radical Islamist and a Czech-trained bomb maker.

Lieutenant Murphy’s death had featured in Mr Callanan’s report because he was one of a number of soldiers killed or injured by shelling and gunfire emanating principally from the compounds of Israeli or Israeli-backed forces “whether reactive or unprovoked”.

Those attacks led up to the deaths of Corporal Fintan Heneghan, Private Mannix Armstrong, and Private Thomas Walsh on March 21, 1989 while also serving with UNIFIL.

Those Defence Forces soldiers to die before them were, as well as Lieutenant Murphy on August 21, 1986, Pte William O’Brien — who was killed on December 6, 1986 — and Corporal Dermot McLoughlin.

He died after being fired on by an Israeli Defence Forces tank on January 10, 1987.

The death of Private Michael McNeela on February 24, 1989, followed and there were the deaths a few weeks later of Corporal Heneghan and his two colleagues.

Cpl Michael McCarthy was subsequently killed on November 15, 1991, in crossfire with Israeli-backed militia and the following year, Corporal Peter Ward — a brother-in-law of Private William O’Brien, who was killed in 1986 — was killed by Iranian-backed Hezbollah On September 29, 1992.

Billy Kedian was the last of 15 UNIFIL soldiers serving with the Defence Forces to be killed in action.

Before his abduction by Israeli special forces, Kasfi had started deliberately targeting UNIFIL because its soldiers, especially Lieutenant Murphy, had been successful in dismantling a lot of the IEDs he had planted to blow up Israeli and Israeli-backed forces.

Mr Callanan’s report noted: “Lieutenant Murphy was targeted and killed because of the valour and persistence with which he sought out and incapacitated IEDs planted by the Lebanese resistance.

“Like many of his confederates and Muslim fellow countrymen, Kasfi considered it was no part of the business of the Irish or any other battalion of UNIFIL, to seek out, incapacitate and remove improvised explosive devices that were targeted not at UNIFIL, but at the Israeli Defence Forces.”

Aonghus Murphy was killed in the Lebanon in 1986. Picture: Ray Ryan
Aonghus Murphy was killed in the Lebanon in 1986. Picture: Ray Ryan

And he added: “Kasfi was also jealously possessive of the improvised explosive devices he devised.

“Lieutenant Murphy's death is significant in that he was intentionally targeted and killed: he was not an unintended collateral victim of hostilities between the Israeli Defence Forces, and the South Lebanese Army on one side, and the Lebanese resistance on the other.” Before he had joined the army, Lieutenant Murphy had been an accomplished footballer, won a Hogan Cup in 1978 before captaining Galway to an Under 21 All-Ireland final in 1981.

He was also instrumental in Tuam Stars’ Galway SFC title success in 1984 and had captained the Galway juniors to a Connacht title in 1985.

“Aonghus was a very determined person,” Conal recalls. “And he was very professional. He was extremely fit and took everything he did seriously.

“He took preparation for his sport very seriously and that then transferred into his preparation into the job.

He would always be a guy that would lead from the front in a way that he would never ask anybody to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

A sign of his popularity and the loyalty that he inspired in not just his friends but also the men he served with was that so many would come back to Galway and visit his parents to reminisce about him, and to ask after them - to see if they were ok.

Engaged to be married, and having just bought a house in Co Kildare, one of the reasons he had gone abroad was to earn some extra money to pay for his mortgage. After he flew off, he was in touch every week by letter at a time when mobile phones were a rarity.

“He would always write,” Conal says.

“In the last letter he sent, he mentioned how he was looking forward to going on holiday with his fiancée to Cyprus.”

Asked how his mother took his brother’s death, Conal has few words.

His voice falters as he thinks about what to say and how best to say it.

“She was never the same after his death,” he says finally after a few moments.

“She was just . . . inconsolable.” He adds: “It would be the last thing you’d think of that somebody would die.

“My dad had been overseas three or four times, I had been overseas once and I had been to Lebanon as well, and in the general area that he was.

Yes, we all knew that there was a risk, but you didn’t dwell on the risk as such or you didn’t think that this was going to happen.

The last time he saw his brother alive was at his passing out parade at McKee Barracks in Dublin before being flown to Lebanon.

It was a sunny day in April, and it was a proud moment for the whole family.

“We were all delighted that he was going overseas,” he recalls.

“This was something he wanted to do and we were proud that he was doing it, and in those days, all those years ago, it was a big deal to be going over.”

The image he still has of his brother after all these years is the smile on his face before he turned and walked away.

“If you look at the photo we have of him, he has this wonderful smile,” he says.

“I don’t remember everything he said before he left but we would have shaken hands, he would have hugged my mother and before he would have turned away, he would have said something like ‘Good luck, and I’ll see you soon’ before adding — with that smile — something like ‘I’ll be back before you know it’.”

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