'Lebanese children have never known war - my aim is make it so that they never do' - General Beary
Songbirds flourished in the south Lebanese village of At Tiri during the 1980s and 1990s. At Tiri provided a sanctuary for the birds, which were a popular target for young boys in that strife-riven part of the country south of the river Litani and leading to the northern Israeli border.
But in At Tiri, most of the population fled the village after it was devastated by clashes between the warring factions, many in a hurry - as the shattered remains of the local school showed with lessons still chalked on the blackboard.
And, of those that were left, none was under the age of 65. Among the few facilities, there was a weekly clinic staffed by medical personnel from the Irish battalion of peacekeepers.
Kildare man Michael Beary served in south Lebanon as a captain and a commandant with three Irish deployments in 1982, 1989 and 1994.
Now he is back there as a 60-year-old major general and current head of mission and force commander of Unifil (United Nations interim force in Lebanon).
Members of the Defence Forces have deployed there as peacekeepers with Unifil since 1978, with 47 personnel losing their lives during that period.
He is only the second Irish officer to be selected to command Unifil, a major military honour for a small country.
Much has changed in south Lebanon, which has enjoyed 10 years of peace, largely due to the influence of Unifil.
"We have 10-year-olds in south Lebanon who have never seen what war looks like," General Beary told the Irish Independent in an exclusive interview during a visit home.
"My intention and hope is that those boys and girls can become young parents at some stage and still not have seen what war looks like."
He described his appointment as a special honour for Ireland and for the Defence Forces, particularly.
"The Defence Forces have always been very actively engaged in peacekeeping.
"Even though our GDP spend on defence would be quite low, we are among the top three countries in Europe providing troops for peace-keeping missions."
General Beary has been in the hot seat at the mission headquarters at Naqoura, 3km north of the Israeli border, since July and is in charge of 10,500 troops with a budget that has recently been boosted to half a billion US dollars.
The mission involves troops from 40 countries, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Italy, France and Spain the biggest suppliers of personnel.
Unifil's area of operations covers 300sq km, running from the Litani river to the Blue Line, which was set up by the UN with the agreement of the Lebanese and Israeli authorities to mark out a border between the two countries.
The Blue Line is about 118km long and the Irish-Finnish battalion has responsibility for patrolling a portion of it.
"We mount up to 400 military operations daily to monitor the peace, ensure that south Lebanon is not used to launch attacks of any kind and prevent the two parties from coming too closely into contact.
"We have to operate very quickly to reduce tensions between the parties and do practical things to stop them pointing weapons and insulting each other.
"By doing that, we hope to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2006, resulting in a 34-day war which, very sadly, resulted in the deaths of 1,100 Lebanese, 120 Israelis and, of course, five UN peacekeepers."
General Beary said Lebanon was a very special country with 18 different religions and was now struggling to form a government after 29 months without a president.
"With the help of the UN, it is fighting to keep instability from coming into the country from the Syrian crisis.
"Lebanon is a country that is fragile but very resilient. The Lebanese people are very warm and welcoming and it is wonderful to think that they have had 10 years of peace. We hope that will continue to grow and in my contacts with both parties, neither the Lebanese nor the Israelis wants any return to violence."
Syria is a concern to Unifil. "It is a country that has had over five years of internal strife and is very fractured with a lot of instability.
"Lebanon is almost an oasis of calm. This is a very unusual role for Lebanon in the Middle East and south Lebanon is almost the calmest part of the country.
"It is a country very similar to Ireland with a population of between 4.5-5 million. It's about the size of Leinster, yet it has 400,000 Palestinian refugees in 12 camps - three of them in the mission area.
"On top of that, there are 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees. That's like the population of Dublin suddenly put upon a country with very limited resources. So Lebanon needs a lot of international support and is receiving it to retain its stability."
The general, who was born in Athy, Co Kildare, described the Lebanese Armed Forces (Laf) as Unifil's strategic partner in carrying out its mandate. "The Laf is one of the most trusted organisations in Lebanese society and it is in everybody's interest to build its capability and capacity to extend the government's remit into south Lebanon right down to the Blue Line."
The expectation was that around 15,000 Lebanese troops would be deployed in south Lebanon. But at the moment there are only 2,000 operating there because of major security concerns in other parts of the country, particularly along its eastern border with Syria and also in the north.
As a result, only 10 to 15pc of Unifil's 400 daily operations are carried out in close co-operation with the Laf.
"But we have a major partnership with them and we help to train them and build their capacity so that, at some point, they will take over responsibility for Unifil's duties in south Lebanon," he added.
Despite Israeli claims that Hezbollah is stockpiling thousands of rockets and anti-tank weapons in villages in south Lebanon, General Beary said Unifil had not found any evidence of a big arms cache and had not been supplied with any precise details that would allow for a joint investigation with Laf.
"We sometimes come across remnants left over from the 2006 war and they are taken away and disposed of by the Laf. It's not part of our mandate to search private properties and we have to exist in harmony with local communities.
"We have more than 55 posts in south Lebanon but have a good relationship with the communities and all of our troops carry out what we call market walks, where they go out and patrol through villages and talk to the locals.
"There is intensive induction training on our rules of engagement and also on sexual exploitation so we don't have any occasions where peacekeepers can be accused of exploiting in that manner. They are briefed that this is not acceptable."
He pointed out that while the Laf has only been operating in the south for the past 10 years, Unifil has been there for almost 40 years.
There are currently some national Lebanese working with the sons and daughters of Irish peacekeepers with whom they worked in previous battalions.
"The link has gone through generations. They know the parents of some of the peacekeepers, which is incredible."
Lebanon was very much in the DNA of Irish Defence Forces peacekeeping, he said.
"Many of the Lebanese came over here on holiday and my former interpreter from 1984 has even lectured here.
"I think it is important to see what instability can do to a country, not particularly Lebanon but the Middle East in general.
"We need sometimes to have a little reality check in Ireland to appreciate what exactly we have here, the freedom we enjoy, the ability to bring up our children, educate our children, go on foreign holidays, that's something that is denied in a lot of these very unstable countries."
Apart from its military duties, Unifil troop-contributing countries also engage in various projects, providing finance for utilities such as electricity and clean water, while the Irish battalion continues its decades-long involvement in an orphanage in Tibnin.
Lebanon is currently in transition. General Beary said there had been a lot of investment since the 2006 war but it had a weak economy and still needed help, with Unifil remaining a big employer in the south.
"The more you develop the economy in south Lebanon, the less likely it is to return to war," he says.
As force commander, General Beary does not have direct contact with Hezbollah's military front. But he has contacts with its political party with many of the mayors, or mukhtars, of the villages within Unifil's area of operation being members of Hezbollah.
One of his most important duties is to chair a monthly tripartite conference on the Blue Line with generals from Lebanon and Israel. "We sit in one room and work out a lot of the difficulties. It is a very useful format and the only forum where Lebanon and Israel can speak."
General Beary's appointment is for two years to allow him to initiate change.
"Permanent ceasefire is a term I hope to introduce because that's where we want to go," he says.