Is Michigan man a war criminal?

(FULL STORY) They moved in lockstep, nearly 400 of them, to the rhythms of a drummer and a piper. They marched a half-mile through downtown streets in the Irish capital, on their way to the U.S. Embassy.
MCT Wire
Jul 24, 2014

The straight-lined formation of former Irish soldiers, three abreast and capped with the blue berets of the United Nations peacekeeping forces, marched with purpose. On this day, July 5, they wanted the U.S. to finally, after 34 years, bring to justice the man they say murdered two of their comrades.

In 1980, Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett of the Irish Defense Forces were kidnapped, tortured, shot and killed, rare casualties of a U.N. mission to keep the peace among warring factions in Lebanon. A third Irish private, John O’Mahony, was shot twice but survived and helped lead the march.

The marchers say one man did this, a man who lives now in Michigan. His name is Mahmoud Bazzi — a Lebanese native who is now 71 and makes a living selling ice cream in Dearborn, Mich.

Two eyewitnesses — O’Mahony and a former journalist who is American — link Bazzi to the crime. On July 15, U.S. Homeland Security officers arrested Bazzi at his apartment in east Dearborn. This week, he is due in federal court in Detroit, where the U.S. plans to start the process of deporting him to his native Lebanon.

The government is holding him on an immigration violation. Bazzi used someone else’s passport to enter the country 21 years ago. U.S. authorities won’t say whether he will face charges linked to the shootings.

But “the allegations of what happened in Lebanon factor heavily in our investigation and our efforts to remove him,” Khaalid Walls, spokesman for the Detroit office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Friday.

Families of the dead soldiers welcomed the arrest, but they want more. They want Bazzi tried for war crimes.

“I don’t think any of the families are asking too much,” said Derek Smallhorne Jr., who was 9 when his father was killed. “Do the right thing. … There has to be enough evidence there.”

But Bazzi told the Free Press that the evidence — including a confession he made on TV long ago in Lebanon — is not what it seems.

He is innocent, he said.

Tensions were high on April 18, 1980, even for south Lebanon. But John O’Mahony wasn’t worried. In days, he’d be headed home to Killarney, a tidy tourist town flanked by mountains in southwestern Ireland. Things were looking good.

As a soldier for UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, O’Mahony spent considerable time in dangerous areas. UNIFIL helped transport soldiers and supplies to several checkpoints and observation posts in territory controlled by a hostile Christian militia. O’Mahony was a driver.

But not today. Recent events had led to death threats — specifically to Irish troops. O’Mahony heard he wouldn’t be taking any risky trips, and he told his friend, the quartermaster, that was just fine. He’d gladly stay back in the safer U.N. zone.

“I said to Paddy, ‘You know, Paddy, I’ll have a good chance of going home alive,’ ” O’Mahony said. “There was nobody allowed in behind the lines, you see.”

But early on that same morning, O’Mahony received new orders. The farthest outpost in the south — Maroun al-Ras, located on the Israel border — needed new supplies. Indeed, O’Mahony would be driving once more into hostile territory.

“My reaction? My face dropped,” O’Mahony, now 62, said in a recent interview at his home in Ireland. “I had the premonition that this was trouble. Serious trouble.”

Lebanon roiled with civil war at the time. And two years earlier, after Israel was attacked, its military pushed into the country, invading from the south to drive Palestinians from its border. The United Nations intervened and pressured Israel to withdraw. But Israel had a surrogate — the Lebanese Christian militia that controlled a buffer zone extending several miles north of the border. The militia could help keep the Palestine Liberation Organization away from Israel. And in the middle of these warring factions, the UN installed its peacekeeping force.

O’Mahony had been in Lebanon for six months. Growing up on a farm, O’Mahony joined the reserve forces at 13. He first donned a military uniform in 1966.

Now 28, he’d been in the regular army for a decade, which included a previous peacekeeping deployment to Cyprus. In nine days, he was scheduled to go back home for a respite. He’d soon be seeing his longtime girlfriend, Mary.

But first, he had his orders. Get your weapon. Go pick up Private Tom Barrett. Drive to a meeting point and wait for further instructions before heading to the post behind the lines in Christian territory. Orders are orders. O’Mahony drove to meet Barrett.

The two knew each other. They were in different platoons, but they’d trained at the same time. They got to know one another better in Lebanon. That day, when they met up, O’Mahony didn’t like the look on Barrett’s face as they sat together in a Jeep, waiting for others to join the convoy.

Barrett knew more about the workings of the Christian militia than did O’Mahony. And Barrett was upset.

“He took out his pen. And he started writing a letter. And he was crying, you know?” O’Mahony recalled. “I said, ‘What’s wrong, Tom?’ And he said, ‘I’m not coming home alive.’ ”

Barrett was writing to his family, a letter they’d never receive.

Emily Barrett kept all of her husband’s letters. One of the last ones she received was written April 16, 1980, two days before he died.

“Just a few lines to let you know I am fine.”

That was how he usually began, penning dozens and dozens of letters Emily Barrett holds in a tin box at her home near the city of Cork in southern Ireland. Tom Barrett wrote to her and their three young girls every day when he was away at war.

His letter spoke to his expected return home in less than two weeks. “I can’t wait ... to see you and give you a big kiss and tell you how much I love you.”

They were 19 when they found each other. He was from Macroom, about 30 minutes west, and they met by chance, in a Cork nightclub. There were her friends and his, and then Emily and Tom paired off and danced. He was already in the army, and they married two years later. They had three daughters, each two years apart.

When he was home from the army, Tom would pop for ice cream and even push the “pram,” as Emily calls the stroller. When he went off to Lebanon, he’d sometimes write individual notes to the girls, too. He’d tuck in a single American buck.

Tom Barrett was 30 when he was killed. Their daughters were 6, 4 and 2. Emily was 29. She has never remarried.

O’Mahony tried to reassure Barrett. He told his friend that an officer from the Christian militia would be escorting their caravan through the hostile area. Despite the death threats to the Irish, this trip had been approved. Things would be OK.

And there were more people joining them, including an American major named Harry Klein. Klein, a Vietnam veteran installed as an observer in Lebanon, had a commanding presence and was well-known. A French officer accompanied him, as well as a reporter and photographer from The Associated Press. Journalists were common in such war-torn areas.

There were three vehicles. O’Mahony drove one, Barrett got out to take the wheel of another, and Derek Smallhorne, who O’Mahony did not meet until that day, drove the third.

Klein was in charge. He asked O’Mahony if he knew the route to Maroun al-Ras? Affirmative, O’Mahony replied.

“ ‘You can lead the way,’ ” Klein said. “ ‘And we’ll follow you.’ ”

O’Mahony, with a rifle, and Barrett, with a submachine gun, were the only ones armed. The convoy rolled.

Tensions had been especially high in the area for the past two weeks. Confrontations between the U.N. peacekeepers and Christian militiamen weren’t unusual, but they usually involved intimidation, not fatalities. O’Mahony said nuisance artillery shelling from the Christian territory sometimes came with a heads-up warning.

But the situation lately had grown increasingly hostile. At the battle of At-Tiri, which began 12 days earlier, there were casualties. An Irish soldier and a militiaman who was a member of the Mahmoud Bazzi family were killed. Maj. Saad Haddad of the Christian militia responded with death threats over his radio program, “The Voice of Hope.” There was an ultimatum: Pay thousands in blood money to the family of the dead militiaman or produce the bodies of two Irish soldiers.

The road through the rocky, rolling terrain to the outpost at Maroun al-Ras included checkpoints that were usually crowded with Christian militiamen. Klein was expecting to meet a Haddad lieutenant at the first one, who would escort them to their destination. The man wasn’t there. Instead, the convoy found just one soldier, who waved them through. A mile further, there was another militia checkpoint usually staffed by a dozen or so men. Again, O’Mahony saw just one person, waving them on.

“I was thinking, this don’t look right,” O’Mahony said. “But what could I do? I was a soldier, carrying out orders.”

The road soon ended in another road, where O’Mahony turned left toward their destination. A man sped by in a Peugeot 404 passenger car. Soon, from ditches alongside the road, several young men with guns popped out, forcing O’Mahony to stop. They ordered him out of the vehicle and took his rifle.

The other vehicles in the convoy also were stopped and the men ordered out. Barrett was disarmed. Klein spoke to the ambushers in Arabic. O’Mahony saw that the man in the Peugeot was back, and the man was agitated.

O’Mahony recognized this man: Mahmoud Bazzi.

When he left that morning to accompany the resupply mission to Maroun al-Ras, American journalist Steve Hindy wasn’t particularly worried. He told his wife that if he was kidnapped, don’t be concerned. Christian militiamen were always harassing the U.N. guys and even holding them against their will on occasion. They always let them go.

Hindy was aware of the recent deadly skirmish at At-Tiri, and the resulting cry for vengeance. That was different. He hadn’t seen such a public outcry for blood. But Hindy heard the trip to resupply the posts had been approved by the Christian militia leadership. And knowing that Klein and the French officer would be there comforted Hindy.

“I felt pretty confident that we were going to be OK,” Hindy said. “We were in good hands.”

He’d been in tense situations before, including a shelling that left him and a photographer shaking in the stairwell of a building where they’d taken cover. This was not like working in the U.S.

Hindy had worked at small newspapers in upstate New York and around the Big Apple before he got his big break and landed a job with The Associated Press in Newark, N.J., in 1976. Working for the AP offered a chance to travel the world.

Hindy began studying Arabic and asked to go to Lebanon. A year later, he was assigned there. He spent time covering the end of the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis. In Lebanon, there was the civil war. He worked out of the bureau in Beirut. After the battle of At-Tiri, when Hindy was offered a chance to bring a photographer and ride along with Harry Klein and the resupply mission, he accepted. He thought it could be a good story.

Hindy sat in back of one of the vehicles with Klein, who talked about being in Vietnam as an army ranger. Hindy said Klein, who has since died, was a colorful character. The major had keychains he’d hand out to people that said something like, “I’m Maj. Harry Klein. Have a nice day” in English.

When the gunmen stopped them, Hindy noticed one man who seemed to be in charge. “He was shouting commands at us, ordering us into the trucks to go with him. And the gunmen seemed to respect him. He had a pistol.”

The gunmen loaded everyone into the trucks and drove them to a nearby abandoned school. The man in charge “was dressed in black. All in black,” Hindy said. “When we got to the school, he started going on and on about ‘his brother, his brother. What had happened to his brother.’ He was holding his shirt … and saying, ‘I’m in mourning,’ with the black clothing. …

“It was then I began to realize, we were in trouble.”

The gunmen herded the captured men into a boys’ bathroom. Hindy remembers the urinals were low to the ground, at a height for children.

The men began asking each of those in the U.N. caravan for their nationalities. They singled out the three Irishmen.

In the bathroom, Smallhorne spoke to O’Mahony. They had just met that day.

“Derek said to me, ‘I’m going home in a week’s time. And I volunteered. I wanted to see what was behind the lines.’ Derek had never served behind the lines,” O’Mahony said. “He only wanted to see what it was like before he went home, the week after. He volunteered for it.”

Smallhorne, from Dublin, was 31. He had a wife, two daughters ages 7 and 3, and his son.

O’Mahony can’t pinpoint when he learned Bazzi’s name, but he said he recognized Bazzi. He was hard to miss. At times prior to this day, when U.N. convoys passed near Bazzi’s village, Bazzi would cause problems, O’Mahony said.

Back in the toilet, after about five minutes, maybe less, Bazzi joined the gunmen holding O’Mahony and company. Bazzi had Barrett’s submachine gun, and Barrett saw the black clothing. “And Tom Barrett went pure white,” O’Mahony said. “I said, ‘What’s wrong, Tom?’ And Tom said to me, ‘That’s for death.’ ”

Bazzi and another man took the Irish away from the bathroom, and forced them down a flight of stairs, O’Mahony said. And that’s when the shooting began.

“He shot me,” O’Mahony said. “I can still picture him. I can picture him as clear as you’re sitting in front of me. I can still picture Bazzi at the top of the steps, firing down at me. And when I looked back up at him a second time, he fired. …

“He’s the man who shot me, period.”

O’Mahony was shot in his right side, and the bullet exited from his left hip. He took another bullet through the right ankle. Barrett and Smallhorne escaped unharmed when the shooting started, but were recaptured by other men outside the school.

“O’Mahony came kind of stumbling out of a hallway,” Hindy said. Klein picked him up and carried him like a baby outside to a vehicle. Hindy said he and Klein were focused on trying to get O’Mahony into the backseat. Hindy remembered looking up to see Smallhorne and Barrett in the back of the Peugeot 404, with the man in black and another gunman. The car sped off.

“I think it was Barrett, who was in the driver’s side of the backseat, craning his neck looking back at us with just frozen terror on his face,” Hindy said.

Klein and Hindy raced to get O’Mahony medical attention. A helicopter eventually took him to a hospital and he underwent surgery. Klein went to one of the checkpoints to demand the release of the other two soldiers. Hindy and his photographer drove back to their bureau in Beirut. He sat down to write his story, and a bulletin came in. Smallhorne and Barrett had been found dead.

Mahmoud Bazzi came to America 21 years ago, he says, using someone else’s passport. Still, he has a valid green card allowing him to reside in the U.S., he said.

He found a home amid the Detroit area’s large Middle Eastern community in Dearborn. He worked as a dishwasher at a Big Boy restaurant for less than a year, then rented a truck and started selling ice cream to children. He has three daughters and a wife who are American citizens, according to one of his daughters. She said he has 23 other children in the Middle East.

Bazzi said he does not know English, and in two interviews with the Detroit Free Press, he spoke through interpreters. A neighbor translated during the first conversation. One of his daughters translated the next.

In Lebanon, his immediate family included 10 boys and three girls. His youngest brother, Massoud, died in the battle of At-Tiri at age 19, Bazzi said, devastating their mother. His brother was days from getting married, he said.

“When my brother died, my mother — every day, 1 or 2 o’clock — we used to take her to his gravesite. She would stay there sleeping on his gravesite.”

Bazzi maintained in the interviews that he is innocent of abducting the Irish soldiers, shooting O’Mahony and killing Smallhorne and Barrett. But his own words from 1980 are a problem for him now.

Sometime in the days immediately following the shootings of the Irish, Bazzi appeared before journalists in Lebanon, and held an impromptu news conference in front of the cameras. He claimed credit for killing the Irishmen, saying it was vengeance for his brother’s death.

Today, he says those words were lies. Bazzi said leaders of the Christian militia forced him to go before the cameras and lie.

“They said you have to come to the TV, and say that you took it out as revenge for your brother,” Bazzi said. “They threatened me. If I don’t say this, they will kill me.”

When told that Hindy has identified him as the abductor, Bazzi said: “That’s not correct. No, no, no.”

When told that O’Mahony identified him as the man who shot him, Bazzi shook his head. “God forbid, no. All this, this is not true. Not true.”

— By Jim Schaefer, Detroit Free Press (MCT)

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