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Enforcing the peace with yoga and pizza

In Lebanon, United Nations troops endear themselves to locals as cultural ambassadors: Italians teach cooking, the French poetry.

August 26, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

EBEL AL SAQI, LEBANON — The yoga instructor chuckles, and the three dozen or so women follow along, giggling nervously before bursting through some invisible layer of restraint or sorrow and laughing with abandon. Grins widen into smiles, tentative squeals bloom into full-bore howls.

The yoga instructor is teaching inner peace, but he's also trying to keep the peace: He's Warrant Officer Mal Singh of the Indian army, part of a 30-year-old United Nations force stationed in southern Lebanon.

The laughs peter out, some of the women wiping tears from their eyes as they gather up their handbags and head home.

"If we feel peace inside ourselves, maybe we will have peace," says Hoda Munzer, a 35-year-old owner of a nearby clothing shop, who has taken a break from work to attend the class with her 9-year-old daughter, Sueen, in this hilltop community near the Israeli border.

For decades, southern Lebanon has been shaken by war, most recently in 2006, when fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah displaced a million people and wrecked dozens of towns and villages. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, is perhaps not aptly named: It has been here since March 23, 1978, its numbers bolstered to about 13,000 after the 2006 conflict.

While serving here, the blue-bereted troops also try to heal the psychic wounds of traumatized residents, serving as cultural ambassadors of sorts. In addition to the Indian troops' yoga instruction, French troops have taught the many Francophone residents courses in poetry. Chinese troops demonstrate tai chi and the South Koreans, tae kwon do. The Spaniards teach espanol, now trendy in Lebanon. Italians have shown off their pizza-making skills.

And what about the German troops? Well, no one expects Germans to offer cooking classes. The hundreds-strong German contingent makes up the bulk of the mission's maritime forces, out at sea patrolling for arms smugglers.

The U.N. peacekeepers also offer medical and dental clinics and computer classes, and they have plans to supply more artificial limbs for the people wounded by old land mines and ordnance.

The efforts are all meant to endear the troops to a local population that has violently resisted incursions by Israeli, French, American and Syrian forces over the decades.

"When we do such things, it brings us closer to the people," said Maj. Rishi Raj Singh of the 800-plus Indian contingent. "The return is immeasurable. We don't spend a lot of money, and it's immensely popular."

It's part of the changing nature of U.N. peacekeeping operations since they began 60 years ago, on May 29, 1948, when the fledgling world body dispatched its first batch of blue-helmeted international troops, with the goal of maintaining a truce between newly founded Israel and its Arab neighbors.

"The warfare environment is much more complex than before," says Maj. Chang Sec-jeun of the South Korean force based near the mostly Shiite Muslim town of Burj Rahhal. "You have to consider not just military dimensions, but nonprofit organizations, economics and civilian life. We keep the peace with the local population. We keep the peace together."

The South Koreans teach tae kwon do in workshops that attract up to 50 young students, many of them on edge over Lebanon's simmering conflicts.

"The tae kwon do helps release their frustration and stress and give them . . . what do you call it? Catharsis?" Chang said.

The troops have set up makeshift tae kwon do studios in three southern Lebanese towns. They hope to have two more by the end of summer, eventually offering 10 classes a week for up to 500 people. The students in one class, ages 11 to 13, line up in formation as the lesson begins.

"Anyon Hasaeyo?" -- how are you doing today? -- the instructor, Lt. Jang Yoo-sung, asks in Korean.

"Hamdullah!" Well, thank God, they respond in Arabic.

The boys and girls stretch their arms into the air, all wearing gleaming white martial arts uniforms and yellow belts handed out free. They bark out numbers in Korean as they kick and punch into the air. "Hana! Dul! Set! Net! Dasote!" they exclaim -- one, two, three, four, five.

"We learn to concentrate and control ourselves," says Abbas Hammoud, a 13-year-old who, like many children, suffered nightmares after the 2006 war. "And to defend ourselves."

No one claims that tae kwon do classes will prevent young men here from joining sectarian militias. But the middle and high school boys taking the classes are in the same demographic group as those now scuttling around on motorbikes in Beirut, northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, the so-called shebab, or young dudes, aimless teens firing off rounds at rival gangs and starting skirmishes with sectarian overtones. Dozens have died in such violence over the last year.

Tae kwon do classes not only build character, but they also create goodwill among a key population group, Chang says. "It's not just physical training," he says. "It's also mental and spiritual."

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