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How a Turk became ‘spokesman’ for South Lebanon 6 janvier 2009

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Daily Star (Lebanon),  Tuesday, January 06, 2009

By Ilona Viczian, Beirut

Former Unifil stalwart Timor Goksel explains how he got here – and why he stays

Timor Goksel was, not surprisingly, puffing on a nargileh at his current favorite Beirut spot, Cafe Rawda, after meeting with students all morning. Goksel needs little introduction in these parts; he served with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon  (UNIFIL) for 24 years, eight of which were as senior adviser and press officer. He’s now a lecturer at the American University of Beirut and is a much-quoted unofficial spokesman for South Lebanon.

Goksel is originally from Ankara, Turkey, where he graduated from the Middle East Technical University with two degrees, in public administration and public finance. He began his UN career in 1968 as a local working in the regional information office in Ankara.

While there, he was offered the post in Lebanon, a post that no one was enthusiastic about, due to the maelstrom of events that were occurring at the time. Goksel was eager to advance his UN career and make an international move, aware of the fate of locals who work for the UN in their home countries. He was not bothered by the atmosphere of violence and potential danger, something that he feels is just part of his personality. The village mentality was also familiar to him, so his posting to Naqoura was not too « far from home » in the end.

« It was a very hot conflict zone, and there usually aren’t many takers for a job like this in the UN, » Goksel told The Daily Star. « I became very quickly adjusted to life in Lebanon. I didn’t feel very far from my own roots, it was a Turkish kind of place, and it opened a lot of doors actually … I was at ease with the environment. »

Goksel said that the sounds of guns and explosions were not an issue for him either. He mentions offhandedly that he was present when the UN headquarters were bombed in 1979 and 1980 by the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed militia led by former Lebanese Army officer Saad Haddad.

« The thing is, even under the most adverse conditions, I could communicate with the most negative characters, and boy did we have negative characters, » he recalled. « I mean at that time, Beirut, especially South Lebanon, was really the hotbed of international terrorism, I mean, every single group was represented here. I never had a problem dealing with them … and I knew how to, sort of, varnish their egos, this sort of thing … By the same token, they found it easy to deal with me.  »

He feels that his Turkish identity and Muslim background were major factors in being accepted and fitting in at Naqoura. He began in February 1979, around six months after UNIFIL was mandated and amid the aftermath of the first Israeli invasion. The job was initially supposed to last six months, but after this elapsed, he was asked if he wanted to stay another six months.  He agreed. After two years went by, his superiors stopped asking him if he wanted to stay; it became a given.

Goksel says that he has seen enough action in his day and insists he doesn’t miss it.  He is quick to steer a conversation away from himself and to the people of the South.

« They have seen enough action, they paid their dues a long time ago, » he said.

What he does miss, however, are the everyday interactions with the rural community.

« My most beautiful experience has been dealing with this kind of people who are really committed to their land, to their villages, and unlike common perceptions, they are not anti-state or anything, » he explained. « They will always, forever, welcome anything that the state does for them, but the state doesn’t do anything, » he added with an ironic smile, leaning back to take a puff on his nargileh.

« I couldn’t give them anything physical, I couldn’t give them anything financial, but I could give them a shoulder to cry on, and believe me they had a lot to cry about, » he said.

Goksel does not visit the South often anymore, commenting that he is too closely identified with the region. If he does visit, locals assume that he is back and involved once more. In a sense, it seems as though he would be raising false hopes by making an appearance. One of his more recent visits took him to Bint Jbeil with his daughter, to see the destruction of the summer 2006 war with Israel.

Within five minutes everyone knew he was there.

« Nobody accepts that I can just be a tourist anymore,’ he said. « It becomes a story why I am there, so … I compensate by eating fish in Tyre. »

Goksel’s commentary on the UN has at times been very critical. There is a big discrepancy, he says, between what happens on the ground and what is projected to happen from an office in New York. Has he ever caught flak for criticizing the UN?

« No no, they agree with me! » he insisted.  » I am a big believer in peacekeeping as a conflict mechanism, a big believer. A lot of countries sacrifice lives, I mean, come on, I was there … But what I’m saying is, as an organization, do we deserve that kind of loyalty, of people risking their lives … Are we fulfilling our part of the bargain as an organization? »

Goksel doesn’t believe so. He asserts that the UN Secretariat General does not actively oppose wrong decisions by the Security Council for, say, a misguided peacekeeping operation. « They keep their mouth shut too much, » he argued.

Although he does not mince words criticizing the United Nations, he is also quick to acknowledge its substantial success in peacekeeping and peace-building missions in other areas of the world.

« There has been some beautiful UN work done all over the world, which is totally unrecognized, » he said. « Only the failures are known. »

In his current incarnation at AUB, Goksel tries to portray this duality of the UN to his students. He wants them to come away with a sense of both the successes and failures of the UN as an organization. His experiences in the South are necessarily a part of his lectures. The biggest obstacle that prevents students from understanding the dynamics of the South, he says, is access.

« You have got to go there and talk to the people. There is no beating that, no matter how much you read. This is my advantage, » he stated.

At the outbreak of the 2006 war, Goksel had been about to take a family vacation in Turkey. When he heard the news about the Israeli attack, he knew he couldn’t leave.

He proceeded to conduct approximately 700 interviews, turning his residence into an impromptu studio. This indicates the extent to which Goksel feels ties to the people of South Lebanon. He said he felt it was important to note that his contribution to the South has not gone unnoticed in the rest of the country, and that gratitude has been expressed to him for representing Lebanon as a whole, as well. He has been treated with appreciation across sectarian lines for his solidarity with the inhabitants of the South by Christians, Druze, and Sunnis alike in the face of international scrutiny.

The place he has called home for many years is still an important part of his life, to the extent that he doesn’t expect to return to Turkey full time.

« I’m staying here now, » he told The Daily Star. « I still feel I can do something here. »

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles The Daily Star is publishing to acquaint readers with prominent, unusual, and captivating people and places in Lebanon.


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