On April 18, 1980, Private John Barrett and Private Derek Smallhorne, two young Irish soldiers stationed with the United Nations peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon, were kidnapped, tortured and executed. A third Irish soldier, John O’Mahony, shot five times in the legs and back, survived.
Today, the man allegedly responsible, a former South Lebanon Army militiaman named Mahmoud Bazzi, lives in the US, in Detroit, MI. He makes his living driving an ice cream truck. Last year, he began the application process for American citizenship.
The only two witnesses of the attacks who are still alive – O’Mahony and Steve Hindy, a former AP journalist (known today as the founder of Brooklyn Brewery) who was captured alongside them - received this news last year from special agents with Homeland Security.
Hopes for bringing a legal case against Bazzi have risen and fallen throughout the last three decades as the political landscape of Lebanon changed and as various officials in both Ireland and the US expressed interest.
Those who have never forgotten what happened that day in 1980 – the families of the murdered Irish soldiers; John O’Mahony and other comrades who served with them; Steve Hindy, who still remembers the look on Pvt. Barrett’s face as he and Smallhorne were driven away from the rest of the group – now view the possibility of a deportation hearing against Bazzi as the only chance they may ever have to see him brought before a court.
Each time the case has re-emerged or progressed over the past 34 years, they say, it grinds infuriatingly to a halt. They are determined to do everything they can to keep that from happening again this time.
“I would like to see him be brought to some form of justice. At the very least, that he be deported back to Lebanon, that he not be allowed citizenship in America,” O’Mahony, now 62 and living on a farm in Scartaglin, Co. Kerry, told IrishCentral.
“I want the American people to ask themselves, 'Do we want this guy selling ice cream to children? Do we want him having American citizenship?' From what I understand about America and the way people think, they wouldn’t want that.”
The Irish in Lebanon
Irish troops were stationed in Lebanon from 1978 – 2000 as part of the nine-nation United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), formed to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the southern part of the country, just above the Israeli border, and to oversee a transition of authority back into the hands of the Lebanese government.
This was the result of the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975 and saw an influx of fighters from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which in turn led Israeli troops to invade the southern part of the country. Instead of fully withdrawing from the region, Israel left the enclave under the watch of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a Christian Lebanese militia led by a rebel Lebanese army major named Saad Haddad. During this time, the SLA was supported and trained by Israel.
The majority of the Irish peacekeeping forces left Lebanon in 2001, a year after Israel withdrew from the area. Over the course of those 23 years, from 1978 – 2001, a total of 48 Irish soldiers died while stationed there.
The deaths of Privates Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne are among the most tragic and well-remembered. Both were just a week away from finishing their tours in Lebanon. Barrett, from Co. Cork, was a member of the Fourth Battalion and had been with the army for nine years. Twenty-nine-years-old, he had a wife and a baby daughter in Ireland. Smallhorne, from Dublin, served with the Fifth Battalion and had been in the army for six years. Thirty-one-years-old, he was married and the father of three young children.
The enclave killings
Their killings were part of a revenge plot that began shortly after April 6, 1980, when, during a clash between SLA troops and UNIFIL soldiers from Ireland and the Netherlands in the village of At-Tiri, a fighter for the SLA was killed. From the Christian radio station Voice of Hope, which was based in Israel and funded by American George Otis, Haddad took to the airwaves to deliver the message that the slain man’s family (whom he would later identify as the Bazzi family) wanted the bodies of two Irish soldiers or the equivalent of $10,000 as recompense.
The death threat persisted, despite the fact that Stephen Griffin, another Irish soldier, had been critically wounded in the exchange of fire at At-Tiri and would die a few days later. So it came as something of a surprise, O’Mahony recalled, when on April 18, he, Barrett and Smallhorne were ordered to drive a convoy taking crucial supplies to the UN Observer Group Lebanon posts along the Israeli-Lebanon border since it would involve passing into territory controlled by Haddad’s men.