Week in the Life Timur Goksel, Un Spokesman: War zone VIP who knows no borders

Click to follow
The Independent Online
OUT OF Timur Goksel's fax machine slides a message from the United Nations' Finnish Battalion, written in that special code that ex-soldiers such as Mr Goksel (a lieutenant in the Turkish army in the early Seventies - his father was a Turkish air force colonel and air attache to Washington) enjoy. It is Thursday morning and it has been a routine night for the 4,500-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon; Unifil has been "interim" since 1978. "Btn 0626-0635hrs AEs from 280m NE 9-34 fired eight (8) rds mor to 400m SE E203," says the Finnish report. "...IDF/DFF Retaliation At 0631hrs E207 fired one (1) rd mor to 500m SW E203."

Mr Goksel's archway eyebrows - he looks like an over-age bear but his teeth could be sharp - hover for a moment over the fax. AEs are "armed elements" - UN-speak for the Hizbollah guerrillas attacking Israeli occupation forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon and their militia allies (DFF means De Facto Forces) - and E207 is an Israeli artillery position. An Indian UN officer tells Mr Goksel that a Fijian soldier has died in his battalion accommodation - suffering internal bleeding after a jog near his headquarters.


FOR 21 YEARS, Mr Goksel has been reading these reports, first as a humble UN press officer, then as senior adviser to the force commander - a role that some in the UN believe makes the 56-year-old Turk more powerful than the force commander, perhaps the most powerful man in southern Lebanon. He is certainly the only man who can lift his phone and within five minutes call Gaby Eskenazi, the Israeli northern front commander, and Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, chairman of the Hizbollah.

Although he doesn't say so, Mr Goksel makes ceasefires. He can also destroy force commanders. Mr Goksel will not comment on the matter, but at least one UN commander left office early after trying to arrange a private deal between Israelis and Lebanese (to Syria's fury).

It had been a good week. On Sunday, Mr Goksel - who lives with his wife Nilgun and two children in the Israeli city of Haifa - had taken his daughter Zeynep to the Herzeliya beach, then rushed to cocktails at the home of the Turkish ambassador to Israel. On Monday, he was making his usual journey across the border to Lebanon for a 7.30 start. In 21 years, he has crossed the Lebanese- Israeli frontier about 13,790 times - most Palestinians in Lebanon would give an arm to do it once in a lifetime - and the Israelis don't search his car. Mr Goksel is VIP material on both sides of the border now, although he was small fry when he first came to Lebanon.


HE HAD been UN press officer in Ankara and his Unifil post had to be approved by that old rogue and former Wehrmacht lieutenant Kurt Waldheim (then UN secretary general). Within weeks, Israel's militias were shelling Mr Goksel's office, and for six years he had to endure the taunts of Israelis who thought they knew Lebanon better than the UN, and that the UN might as well pack up and go home. Instead, the UN stayed. And it is the Israelis - bleeding from the attacks of Shia Muslims about whom Mr Goksel had once warned them - who are desperate to go home.

Israel's possible redeployment comes up at Mr Goksel's Tuesday morning meeting with the force commander, the Fijian General Jiouji Konroti. "We ask the Lebanese: what do you guys plan to do if they [the Israelis] leave?" he says. "And the Lebanese all become stones when you ask about the future." So by Tuesday morning, Mr Goksel is still trying to work out the semantics of an Israeli withdrawal. "Do the UN go to the border? If so, where do we put our soldiers? In tents? Where do we get tents from? When the Lebanese who believe the US will send soldiers return from outer space, they will realise there's a role for the UN. Procurement can take four months."


BY WEDNESDAY, Mr Goksel is faced with an old request: the retrieval of three rotting Hizbollah bodies from a wadi in the Irish battalion area: victims of an attack on Israeli occupation troops. The families want to bury their dead. Mr Goksel has a much-improved liaison with the Israelis (especially now that Amnon Shahak is commander) since the Qana massacre when Israeli shells killed more than 100 civilians (half of them children) at the UN's Fijian headquarters. "I thought I'd be fired after Qana," he says. "It was the only time I found it difficult to be coldly objective. I was sitting here and I had 600 telephone calls. The Israelis shelled it and they knew where the Fijian headquarters was. I also announced that Hizbollah had been firing [at Israeli troops] from near the compound so that took the heat off the Israelis. I'm a Turk. We are basically an emotional country. We are human beings. We can't turn our backs on tragedy. It was the only time I lost my cool."

He still remembers the helplessness of 1982 when the Israeli army drove through UN lines. "You are so helpless when there's a war machine rolling past your headquarters. You are reduced to counting them and taking pictures... Then we realised there were 6,000 people on the beach in Tyre and I organised a convoy of food, water, doctors, nurses, the lot, to help and we got there after a lot of trouble with the Israelis and there were terrible scenes on the beach, wounded and sick, and I think that was the beginning of the love affair between Unifil and Tyre."


MR GOKSEL had a bypass operation two years ago, smokes 20 cigarettes a day and goes to a Sidon doctor who offers him cigars after each check- up. There is a rumour - malicious, of course - that ambitious junior staffers take a professional interest in Mr Goksel's health. I suggest he'll still be in his office in 10 years' time and that he will be an even more dangerous man to cross. With a grin, Mr Goksel admits the bear has sharp teeth. Over the weekend, his staff compile press reports "of interest" to UN battalions, for distribution on Monday morning. And in two days' time, I promise, there will be among them an article from The Independent, entitled "A week in the life of Timur Goksel".

Robert Fisk