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.
In addition to the three Irish UNIFIL soldiers, the convoy was comprised of two unarmed officers from UN Observer Group Lebanon – Major Harry Klein, an American, and Captain Patrick Vincent, a Frenchman – and two members of the Associated Press – journalist Steve Hindy, an American, and Armenian-Lebanese photographer Zaven Vartan.
At the first checkpoint, the convoy was to be met by a Haddad lieutenant named Abu Iskandar who would ensure their safe passage to the village of Maroun Al-Ras. As O’Mahony remembers, and as Steve Hindy reported at the time and recently described again in an article for Vice magazine, Iskandar was not there but the convoy was waved through by SLA militiamen wearing Israeli uniforms.
Just outside the village of Betit Yahoun, a group of gunmen – some in uniform, others in civilian clothes – emerged from either side of the road and surrounded the trucks, ordering everyone in the convoy to step outside. The Irish soldiers were disarmed. A Peugeot 404 drove up and from it emerged a Lebanese man, about 30-years-old, wearing a black shirt – a sign of mourning – and speaking in rushed Arabic about his brother.
O’Mahony, the two UN officers and Hindy were packed into his car; Barrett, Smallhorne and Vartan, the photographer, into another. They were driven a short distance to an abandoned schoolhouse, where they were told to state their nationalities. All except for Vartan were then taken to a boy’s restroom, where they were again asked to repeat their nationalities.
As Hindy wrote in the story he later filed with AP, “Two teenage gunmen stood guard at the doorway. . . . ‘American, good, French, good,’ said the two teenagers. Klein, who speaks passable Arabic, told the Irish to stop smiling. We all stopped smiling.”
The man in the black shirt reappeared, carrying one of the Irish soldiers’ guns, and separated O’Mahony, Barrett and Smallhorne from the rest of the group. As O’Mahony explained, “’Twas easy to pick us out because we were with the UN but we still had our Irish badges. So he took the three of us away and escorted us down another flight of stairs to the basement. About halfway down the landing he opened fire on us. I happened to be shot and I fell down, but the two other lads were able to make a run for it. That was the last I saw of them.”
Everyone else was free to go. They quickly took O’Mahony, who was bleeding from his wounds, to the nearby town of Bint Jbail. Hindy wrote, “We spotted some Israeli Army officers in the streets and decided it would be safer to transfer him to a taxi before driving back to the Irish UN headquarters in Tibnin. Zaven followed in a UN jeep. When we got there, Irish commander[s] and UNIFIL commander Ghanaian General Emmanuel Erskine were waiting for us. At the Irish headquarters, a helicopter flew O’Mahony to a UN hospital in Naquora, Lebanon. Klein immediately contacted the Haddad and the Israeli military command to demand the Irishmen’s return.”
A few hours later, they heard that the bodies of Barrett and Smallhorne had been found near Bint Jbail. They had visibly been tortured and then executed, one shot in the back of the head, the other in the front of his neck.
Hindy and Vartan made it back to the AP office in Beirut, where Hindy was able to file an account of the kidnapping. The AP bureau in Tel Aviv later edited his story to state that the attack had been carried out by “Arab villagers” rather than “Israeli-backed militiamen.”
News of the attack made the front page of the New York Times and the Irish Times the following day. Coverage continued as the bodies of Barrett and Smallhorne were laid to rest. John O’Mahony arrived back in Ireland on April 23, in a stretcher.
After the initial shock, blame began to circulate. Ireland and UNIFIL largely blamed the Israelis and Haddad. Then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey described the attacks as “wanton murder.” Garret FitzGerald, who would succeed Haughey in office said, “[t]he activities of the illegal forces and their continued aggression against the UN forces in the Lebanon have become an intolerable affront to the civilized world. The government should seek the immediate support of our ECC [European Central Council] partners, the United States, and other friendly countries to secure effective action in support of the UN forces in the area and to insist on the cutting off of all aid and assistance by Israel to this illegal force.”
The Israelis claimed to have no control over nor part in the actions of Haddad’s men. Haddad himself blamed the Irish forces for failing to properly reconcile with the Bazzi family. On Lebanese TV, a man named Mahmoud Bazzi, recognizable as the man in the black shirt from the day of the attacks, took credit for the killings.
The wheels of justice grind slowly
Over the past three decades, O’Mahony, the families of Barrett and Smallhorne, and a number of Irish officials have explored various legal avenues, none of which proved fruitful, largely due to the lack of any extradition agreements between the countries involved.
The Irish Army conducted its own investigation into the attack but declined to make its findings public. O’Mahony twice brought actions against the Irish government, in 1982 and 1989, for damages and for access to the papers on the basis that he, Barrett and Smallhorne should not have been placed under the command of Major Klein and Captain Vincent, since the two men were with UN Observer Group Lebanon, not UNIFIL. The court upheld the army’s right to keep the papers classified, but in 1989 O’Mahony settled with the Irish government for an undisclosed amount.
For the 20th anniversary of the attacks in April 2000, RTE "Prime Time" conducted a special investigation. Titled “The Enclave Killings,” the program brought John O’Mahony back to Lebanon for the first time since the attacks as he retraced the events of April 18, 1980. It also featured interviews with UN General Emmanuel Erskine, and, for the first time, Major Harry Klein, who was by then retired.
RTE reporter Fiona MacCarthy tracked down Mahmoud Bazzi to Detroit, where he is believed to have fled not long after the Irish soldiers were murdered. With a translator, she confronted him by his front lawn. In the footage, Bazzi wears a striped referee’s shirt and hasd salt-and-pepper hair. He walks from his house to his ice cream truck, reluctantly answering MacCarthy’s questions.
When she asks him if he killed the Irish soldiers, speaking through a translator he claims that he was innocent, that he was used as a decoy. “I went to the school with them and I was with them but I didn’t do anything. Two members of the UN forces were killed. After that Saad Haddad and other members of the forces came to me and said that I must go to TV and say that I killed them to avenge the death of my brother so no one would talk about it anymore. I went to TV as they told me. I knew that if I didn’t do it they would kill me.”
“The Enclave Killings” brought renewed interest to the case. After a number of inquiries, in 2003, then-Irish Defense Minister Michael Smith announced that the best possible scenario, though unlikely, would see Bazzi standing trial in Lebanon. In 2005, the Irish Defense Minister at the time, Willie O’Dea, requested that then-Attorney General Rory Brady re-open the case and once again look into the possibility of bringing Bazzi to trial in Ireland or abroad. Brady was unable to find a new angle.
In 2006, John O’Mahony was interviewed in Tralee by two American agents. Meanwhile, in the US, Steve Hindy was contacted by the Department of Justice and asked to provide testimony about the attack. Once at Brooklyn Brewery and once in Washington, DC, he was interviewed by members of the DOJ Office of Special Investigations – the same office that was responsible for tracking down former Nazis. They informed him that under the 2004 Anti-Atrocity Alien Deportation Act the office was working on locating individuals who had committed war crimes abroad and were now living in the US.
Nothing, to his knowledge, ever came of it. “Obviously the wheels of justice grind slowly in this case,” he said. “I was disappointed. It sounded like they were going to move, but nothing happened and they wouldn’t give me any explanation why.”
One last chance
As the years go by, the killings have faded from the public consciousness and those involved are getting older. The Barrett and Smallhorne children are all grown up, some with children of their own. Saad Haddad succumbed to cancer in 1984. Major Harry Kelin died of a brain aneurysm in 2002.
“It’s a long time for us all to still be around and thinking about it,” O’Mahony acknowledged. “But for some of the people here it’s still very fresh. I was a soldier and I know it’s a risk you take, you put your life on the line. I would have no problem with this if it had happened in an army ambush or a battle. But this was an outright murder and we can’t seem to do a thing about it, there’s something that always stalls it up. That’s what I don’t like about it: somewhere along the line something doesn’t fit. I don’t really know what [Bazzi] has on his side, but it doesn’t sound right to me anyway.”
There might be one final possibility. In June of last year, Steve Hindy got a call from Special Agent Perry Kao from the New York office of the Department of Homeland Security. With another agent, Tim Auman, Kao paid a visit to Hindy in Brooklyn. They told him Homeland had determined that Bazzi had “entered the United States illegally with falsified papers. He was granted political asylum, then a green card, and now wanted to become an American citizen.”
They asked Hindy to pick Bazzi out from a number of headshots, which he was easily able to do, even after 33 years. They then informed him that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was planning to hold a hearing in Detroit on Bazzi’s citizenship request and asked if he would be willing to testify, which he confirmed he would be happy to do.
By January, he hadn’t heard anything further. Figuring that raising public awareness could only help, Hindy published an article in Vice detailing his experience on April 18, 1980 and the long chain of investigative starts and stops that has continued ever since. Both he and Vice attempted to contact Bazzi a number of times, but each time they called his house someone hung up immediately.
Still, the article caught the attention of Robbie Masterson, a veteran of the Irish army who served in Lebanon with Smallhorne and Barrett, and who in recent years has been helping to continue Irish awareness of and involvement in the case.
“The saying goes, you don’t leave anyone behind,” Masterson told IrishCentral. “And we didn’t leave them behind, but it’s unfinished business. It’s very hard for guys like ourselves, who knew the guys and their families. It seems totally unjust that this guy could just live out his life in the US and enjoy all the benefits, whatever they may be, of a life in the US.”
Masterson put Hindy in touch with John O’Mahony. As it turned out, O’Mahony said he had also been contacted by agents wondering if he would testify in a citizenship hearing against Bazzi. He had been scheduled to meet with one of them in September, at the US Embassy in Dublin, when two days before the meeting was to take place he got a call saying it had to be postponed. As he is well accustomed to by now, he hasn’t had any contact from them since.
After publishing the article in Vice, Hindy heard from Special Agent Kao one more time. Kao informed him that the case is being handled by the Homeland Security Office in Detroit and told him that they would either contact Hindy directly or would ask Kao himself to arrange arrange for Hindy to testify.
“He wouldn’t give me the name of the investigator, the agent in Detroit,” Hindy said with an audibly raised eyebrow. “He said don’t worry, they’ll call you.”
They haven’t yet, but hopes are raised once again. While it’s generally understood now that taking Bazzi to trial for the killings will be next to impossible, O’Mahony and Masterson say that simply getting him to appear before a court – even if it is only for a citizenship trial – will be a victory in their books.
“Bazzi getting US citizenship would really be the nail in the coffin for us here in Ireland, having fought so hard for the last 34 years to try and get some justice,” O’Mahony said.
“I would just like to see somebody in authority ask him questions, do you know? If he was living in some other country it would be one thing, but in America I would expect better, especially after what America has gone through with wars.”
“To get Bazzi to stand in front of an immigration/deportation hearing would, in itself, be a huge step forward in the right direction,” Masterson agreed. “You hear about deportation cases all the time, so clearly if the political will is there, this can be done. Obviously he’ll have an opportunity to put his side of the story forward – and that’s good, he’s entitled to that, that’s democracy – but we want to keep the consciousness on the US authorities because this has been going on for years now.”
A resident of the area where Bazzi lives, who spoke to IrishCentral under the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Bazzi is still driving the ice cream truck and said that he sometimes goes by Mohamed instead of Mahmoud. He said it is understood that Bazzi occasionally travels to Canada, where another branch of the Bazzi family has settled. “You obviously have to be very confident in your situation and your immigrant status to be doing that,” he added.
He also spoke to the delicate balance in the Detroit/Dearborn community, which is home to one of the country’s largest Middle Eastern communities. In addition to Bazzi, a number of Shiite former SLA militiamen settled in the area, many after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. In addition to awakening political, religious and ethnic tensions within the community, he said, they were also greeted with a certain degree of resentment because it was understood that their departures from Lebanon had been facilitated.
“This is a country of immigrants and we know what it takes to come here,” he said. “The United States has quotas on how many people can come from different countries, and from a country like Lebanon, even for a law-abiding citizen who wants to come here and has the means and whatnot; it’s still usually a process. Some of the people who came from Southern Lebanon had known criminal histories, so there’s no way their moves weren’t arranged.”
He shared the story of a good friend whose block went through some turbulent times after a former SLA militiaman and his family bought a house on the street. “People didn’t take too well to it, so they would drive by and yell things, harass the new family quite a bit,” he recalled. Eventually, everyone on the street received letters inviting them to a meeting at the local library where they were told ‘this man is a guest of the US government and should be made welcome.’
“In addition to it being a Lebanese immigrant community there are Iraqi immigrants, immigrants from all over,” he added. “You don’t always know what’s true and what isn’t, but you hear a lot of things about people being brought over here and protected.”
If that is the case with the alleged killer of Barrett and Smallhorne – and it is a big “if” until there is more to build upon than suspicions and tacit understandings – it may be impossible for Bazzi to be deported.
And if he were to be deported, a further question remains of where he would be deported to.
As Hindy pointed out, the southern region of Lebanon is currently controlled by Hezbollah, who would have been enemies of the SLA. A number of SLA officers did settle in Israel after they withdrew from Lebanon, he added, but he also said it seemed doubtful Israel would want Bazzi at this point.
In any case, for the time being, Masterson said the big question is simply, “Is there is going to be a hearing, and if so, when will it be? And if there isn’t, why not? On what basis?
“That’s the thing we’d all like to know.”