Thursday 14 December 2017

Army family hit twice by tragedy recalls Syria posting

The daughter of a senior defence forces officer shot dead in the line of duty was later murdered here, writes Jim Cusack

Commandant Tommy Wickham, left, was shot dead on duty at the Golan Heights in 1969
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

THE deployment of Irish soldiers to Syria has brought back bittersweet memories for an Army family twice hit by tragedy.

Commandant Tommy Wickham was the most senior officer in the Defence Forces to die in the line of duty. He was shot dead by Syrian troops in 1967 at the same United Nations post where Irish troops are to be deployed.

His daughter, Joyce, 44, who was married to Army officer Ray Quinn, was murdered in Kildare in January 1996 by out-of-work butcher, Kenneth O'Reilly, who was sentenced to life for the crime.

Joyce Quinn spent two years in the Middle East with Ray and their children while he served on UN missions, including 16 months in Syria.

Joyce's father, Cmdt Tommy Wickham, was on duty with the United Nations at the disputed Golan Heights when war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. He was shot dead while on his way to relieve other UN observers at the Golan Heights on the start of the Six Day War in June 1967.

He was killed just two weeks after his wife Patricia and their three children had arrived in Damascus to join him for his tour of duty.

Patricia was left to fend for her family, one of the children sick with food poisoning, while the city came under aerial bombardment, and the airport closed. She was eventually transported to Beirut to fly home with her children.

Years later, Joyce accompanied her husband Ray in 1990 when he also served as a UN observer at the same post as his late father-in-law. Ray, a retired Colonel, said his wife enjoyed her time in Syria despite the memories of her father's death. She too brought her children, Nicole, David and Lisa, to Syria. The family spent a further six months living in northern Israel while Ray served another UN tour in south Lebanon.

Recalling the stay in Syria, Ray said: "Despite the fact that her father had been killed by the Syrian army, Joyce was happy to accompany me there with our family. I served for 16 months on the Golan Heights, mostly on the Syrian side. Our family really enjoyed our time in Damascus despite tensions from time to time."

Speaking about his late father-in-law, Ray said: "He is the only Irish Army casualty that occurred in Syria.

He was shot dead by a Syrian soldier on the Golan Heights on June 7, 1967, the day after the Six Day Arab-Israeli war started. Tommy Wickham was an unarmed observer serving with United Nations Treaty Supervisory Organisation (UNTSO). The incident occurred during a misguided attempt to relieve some observer positions on the Golan Heights after the war started. Tommy Wickham was shot at a Syrian checkpoint at the old Roman bridge near the village of Ar Rafid on the Golan Heights. The bridge was subsequently blown up by the Israelis.

"The Syrians subsequently sentenced the soldier involved to 18 years in jail.

"Tommy Wickham was not long in the mission area at the time of his death. In fact, his wife and their three children, Denise the youngest was just four, had arrived in Damascus just a fortnight before the war started. It was a pretty terrible situation, to be dropped into a totally alien environment, language and cultural wise, in the middle of a war with Damascus city being bombed by the Israeli Airforce."

Retired Colonel Ray Quinn said the area where the 115 Irish troops are to be deployed has been troubled for decades.

"When the ceasefire was agreed after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Israeli Army withdrew to an agreed line. This disrupted communities that had been there since before the time of Christ.

A small town called Quneitra, approximately the size of Abbeyleix, was located adjacent to the ceasefire line. As the Israelis did not want a populated area beside what they viewed as their new 'border', they blew up every single dwelling and business premises in the town. The only buildings left intact were the church and the mosque. The population was forced to flee into Syria. Quneitra is now the only crossing place on the Golan," he said.

"Nearby, also seriously discommoded, was the Druze community on the Golan. They lived in two towns, again each about the size of Abbeyleix, Hadar and Majdal Shams. The Israelis constructed a border fence with the usual minefields, wire and electronic sensors that totally separated the Druze community."

Patricia Wickham is now in her eighties and lives in Dublin.

There is still uncertainty about the deployment of the Irish troops due to the civil war in Syria. They are to help replace Austrian, Japanese and Croatian UN troops who have been withdrawn because of the escalating violence in the country.

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News