BEIRUT: It’s 38 years since Pvts. Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett were kidnapped, tortured and murdered in south Lebanon while on active duty with UNIFIL. For their families, the psychological impact of that day continues with the search for justice, as the man accused of the murders is yet to be sentenced by Lebanon’s Military Court. The trial has undergone numerous delays since the accused, Mahmoud Bazzi, was first brought before the court in June 2015.
With each delay comes further worry for the families.
“We’re very anxious about this. Every time [the trial] gets delayed it’s torturous,” Barrett’s daughter Karen told The Daily Star. “It’s like we’re on a roller-coaster we can’t get off.”
At the time of their murders, Barrett and Smallhorne, who had a week remaining of their tour in Lebanon, were part of a UNIFIL convoy that had been traveling to resupply frontier posts on Lebanon’s southern border.
Less than two weeks earlier, UNIFIL and the South Lebanon Army – an Israeli proxy force established to create a security buffer and disbanded in 2000 as Israel pulled out of Lebanon – had been engaged in clashes, as a result of which one Irish peacekeeper and one SLA militiaman died. The group’s leader Saad Haddad took to the radio to demand either the deaths of two more Irish soldiers or $10,000 blood money in retribution.
Despite the clashes and Haddad’s threats, the convoy in which Smallhorne and Barrett were acting as drivers went ahead. It was stopped deep inside SLA territory by an armed group, which was allegedly led by Bazzi, the brother of the dead militiaman. The SLA took the seven-man convoy to a school, where Smallhorne, Barrett and their compatriot Pvt. John O’Mahony, were separated from the rest of the group.
O’Mahony was shot and left for dead. Barrett and Smallhorne fled and managed to escape the building, but were recaptured by waiting SLA militiamen. They were last seen being driven away in a car. Steve Hindy, a journalist in the kidnapped convoy, identified Bazzi as having been in the car as well. Smallhorne and Barrett were found dead some hours later, bearing signs of torture.
O’Mahony survived the attack and would later testify in front of a Lebanese Military Court that the man who shot him was Mahmoud Bazzi. Shortly after the incident, Bazzi went on Lebanese media claiming responsibility for the killings but later backtracked, saying he had been forced to make the confession by the SLA. There was a long wait before the trial and O’Mahony’s testimony, however. For the best part of two decades, the grieving families of the Irish soldiers had no idea where Bazzi was and the murders went unresolved.
For Smallhorne’s daughter Kim Haugh, who was 3 years old at the time, the death of her father had a direct impact on her growing up.
“Kidnap and murder happened in our house. To me it wasn’t something that happened in the Middle East,” she told The Daily Star.
“It’s traumatic for a family and for children and you need to have specialized support,” Haugh said.
“As a child, all I knew was that my dad who looked after us was kidnapped. ... When I had quiet time I would think about how you make sure you’re safe, how you’re not going to get kidnapped. It had a real impact on how I grew up.”
Haugh’s memories were echoed by Barrett’s daughter Karen, who remembers the Disney cards her father used to send home from Lebanon with a dollar bill inside each. She told The Daily Star that as a 6-year-old child she didn’t immediately comprehend the insidious nature of her father’s death.
“It’s as you get older you understand he didn’t die in his sleep, he didn’t die in a road accident, he didn’t have a heart attack, he was actually purposefully taken and murdered,” she said. “That’s I think when a little trauma comes into play because you have to process that.”
For twenty years after the attacks, little was known of Bazzi’s whereabouts until an Irish TV team tracked him to Detroit in the United States, where he was working as an ice cream seller, having migrated several years previously.
That was when the families of Smallhorne and Barrett started to hope that the man identified as having killed their loved ones might face justice. But it would be a long wait.
“We’d been always told, even though we knew where he was, that until he was extradited back to Lebanon nothing could ever happen to him,” Karen Barrett said.
“So we’ve known where he’s been an awful long time but everybody told us their hands were tied.”
Bazzi adamantly refused to return to Lebanon, telling the Detroit Free Press newspaper that he would be in danger, having worked for the Israel-backed SLA. He told the newspaper that he would rather die than return to his home country.
The decision was made for him when, in July 2014, Bazzi was arrested on charges of entering the U.S. using falsified papers. Following hearings, he was deported to Lebanon in January 2015.
Bazzi’s first appearance in front of the Lebanese Military Court was in June that year, and last month he was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor for collaborating with Israel.
The trial for the murders of Smallhorne and Barrett, however, has been delayed multiple times for technical reasons, with the next hearing rescheduled for June 26 this year for the recall of several witnesses.
There is considerable evidence against Bazzi, not least the eyewitness accounts of Hindy and O’Mahony, and Bazzi’s own confession.
Despite the anxiety caused by the multiple delays to the trial, the families are hopeful that justice will eventually prevail. “We’ve been fighting all this time for justice,” Karen Barrett said. “All I want is for the Lebanese to know this hasn’t been forgotten about. Their families never forgot about them.”