'We cried for all of the dead children'

Qana massacre: Fijian colonel in charge of UN compound dismisses Israeli claim that attack was a map-reading mistake
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The Independent Online
Lieutenant Colonel Wame Waqanivavalagi sat in the front of the television of his smashed officers' mess yesterday afternoon and watched his own headquarters being shelled by the Israelis. As the artillery rounds howled down on the Fijian battalion headquarters at Qana on the videotape in front of him, the colonel - who has spent eight years on United Nations service in southern Lebanon - pointed at the smoke that filled the screen.

"In there, Robert, was an awful place to be," he said. And he shook his head. "The Israeli 'margin of error' was too big to say this was an error. There were two Israeli helicopters observing the shelling in this headquarters - they were observing as shells landed here."

The videotape, which forms the centrepiece of the UN investigation into the attack on Qana - a copy of the film was obtained by the Independent - showed an Israeli pilotless reconnaissance drone, used for artillery spotting, flying low over Qana at the height of the Israeli bombardment. The Israelis said it was on "another mission" but Colonel Waqanivavalagi was unimpressed.

"I wouldn't know about 'another mission'," he said pointedly. "All I know is that I was shelled. My men saw these Israeli drone planes from their observation post. They saw one before the massacre. We know the Israelis are very good at artillery shooting. Much of the time when the Israelis have shot in this area, we would loaf around in the camp. We knew how accurate their shooting was. That's why there was no air of expectancy in the camp before the attack."

The colonel was in his command centre when the first Israeli artillery round to hit the UN base - there were 12 in all - landed near the Fijian UN battalion's outdoor refrigerator on 18 April. "It was chaos," he said. "Everyone was crying. People were being killed. Bodies were flying in the air. At one point there was a big explosion and I looked up and saw a whole house had gone. I saw two of my soldiers carrying bodies in blankets with hands hanging out. People were shouting 'casualties' and 'four soldiers severely injured'."

The colonel raised his hands. "When it was over, I just couldn't believe it - that we could be shelled in our own tactical headquarters. I was astonished. I stood there helpless. I couldn't do anything to stop the whole thing."

But like many of the 150 Fijian soldiers at the Qana base, the colonel has children - two-year-old Leilani, Lorna, six, and an eight-year-old boy called Sakiesa - and it was their faces which confronted him when the Israeli shells had killed the last of the 120 or more refugees.

"There were so many dead children and when I saw the bodies, my own children were right in front of me." The colonel put his hand in front of his face, the fingers towards him. "They were there, like that, so close to me. If they had told me there was going to be a massacre, I wouldn't have come to Lebanon. It is one of the saddest, most deplorable things that any human being can be killed under our security."

Most of the 560 refugees in the camp - another 300 ran into the UN base just before the shelling and after they had heard the Hizbollah mortar fire 350 metres away - had been living among the Fijians for eight days and some of the soldiers had become close friends with the Lebanese civilians, especially the children.

"We had been living with these people for more than a week," the colonel said. "Every night, our soldiers would hold the babies and rock them to sleep for their mothers. My men gave up their beds, their rooms, their food for these people. They taught us to make the Lebanese kibis food and when we held our Christian service every evening they would all be very quiet and many of the Muslims would come and stand near us and watch us in silence as we prayed.

"It was a relationship with the Lebanese people that we hadn't had in the 18 years our battalions have been here. And then we saw them killed. We were starting to learn each other's culture. And suddenly, everything went away."

The colonel admits that he and most of his men wept in the minutes that followed the end of the attack. "We all cried. We had known them so well - some of my men were very affected. They knew the kids and they had to pick up pieces of them. They had held the babies and they had to pick them up in bits. It's just too horrific to describe."

At the weekend, a UN team from New York arrived to provide psychological help for the soldiers, some of whom had slept in groups on the floors in the nights that followed, unable to sleep, jumping at the slightest sound - a car braking or a spoon dropping from a table. Several were recommended immediate home leave.

Colonel Waqanivavalagi did observe several Hizbollah men arrive at the compound after - not before - the shelling. They were, he said, the men who fired the mortars at which the Israelis claimed they were firing.

"They came in to look for their families who were here. And one of them found that all his family had been killed. He was hysterical. He kept shouting 'these are my people'. But the people who died were civilians. They had become our friends. Who cannot see this and think of their children? At the end, I cried inside my soul. Not even tears can describe what happened."