Arafat visit a highlight of peacekeeping role in Sinai
Name: David Hartshorn
Unit: Multinational Force and Observers (MFO)
When Yasser Arafat made his first visit to the Sinai since his expulsion from the area in the 1960s, Sgt David Hartshorn was on duty with the Australian contingent of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) known as Operation Mazurka.
The MFO was an international peacekeeping force in the Sinai to keep the previously warring countries of Egypt and Israel apart.
Arafat arrived in his own plane on 1 July 1994 and was escorted through the UN base by the Australian commander of the MFO, Major-General David Ferguson, and then headed off in a motorcade across the border to the Gaza Strip. There, he was greeted by tens of thousands of cheering Palestinians, according to a report in Keesing's Record of World Events.
Sgt Hartshorn recalls that Arafat appeared to be "quiet, quick witted and confident, but wary of anything that might go wrong". He was accompanied by a strong contingent of bodyguards.
As the duty officer, Sgt Hartshorn kept the Force Duty Centre log of the day's historical events. The log, map and situation reports on the visit are now with the Australian War Memorial.
"There is a relaxed professionalism here," Sgt Hartshorn wrote in a letter to his family. "The feeling you are doing something you have been trained for and are making a contribution to world politics.
"A couple of days ago the force commander was driving back to camp and his driver saw an Israeli vehicle on fire. They stopped and rendered assistance by using the fire extinguisher in the commander's car as the Israelis don't have fire equipment in their vehicles.
"Later on people were concerned about the commander stopping as it could have been a set up. It fortunately wasn't but even though we are sanctioned by both Egypt and Israel, there are people on both sides who don't want us here."
Whilst the Arafat visit was a highlight of his time in Sinai, Sgt Hartshorn found plenty to keep himself busy.
The MFO's force duty office received regular reports of incidents which required attention - often violation of access restrictions by heavily-armed Bedouin.
A huge number of mines had been layed in the area and often injured or killed people who walked on them. Keeping track of the mines was almost impossible in the shifting desert sands.
On one occasion Sgt Hartshorn had to deploy members of the MFO who tried in vain to rescue two Egyptians who had fallen into a well they had been digging.
"We commenced a 36-hour digging operation at the site but failed to recover the bodies," he recalled. "Due to the desert sand, every time we dug deep, the sides would cave in. We had two back hoes, a fire unit, an ambulance and MFO MPs deployed, and at one stage an Egyptian house was in danger of falling in as well."
Eventually they were forced to give up and filled in the hole.
Over flying of the borders was another problem. On one occasion it took some fast talking to prevent the Israelis from shooting down a UN helicopter which had 'strayed'.
In between, Sgt Hartshorn was able to see something of the surrounding countries including visits to El Alamein and other famous battle sites as well as taking atrip down the Nile and visiting the Sphinx and Pyramids.
Driving conditions were something he commented on in his letters home.
"Nothing surprises us in the road any more," he wrote to his family. "Roads with three official lanes will have four or five unofficial lanes, cars jammed together, ignoring red lights (most lights are about to fall over anyway) and one-way signs, trucks driving the wrong way in dual lane carriageways. We even saw a man in a wheel chair sitting in the middle of the right hand lane with traffic whizzing around him."
Sgt Hartshorn's wife, Corinne, and two daughters, Vanessa and Natalie, visited the region during his tour of duty. Shortly after he had seen them off on the flight back to Australia, a suicide bomb attack took place on a bus in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv in which 22 people were killed and 40 wounded. They had visited the square just a few days earlier.
A woman employee of the MFO had been on the bus which was blown up but had got off 90 seconds prior to the explosion.
"She recalls seeing a nervous person with a bulky package in his lap," he wrote. "I thank God for our safety, and your prayers, but my heart also goes out to those injured and the families of those killed."
Not all the incident reports received in the Force Duty Centre were serious, according to Sgt Hartshorn. The area had been hit by the heaviest rain seen in the region for many years.
"The other day one of the Colombian guards in a tower near our airfield saw two Bedouin trying to steal fencing materials from our perimeter fence," he wrote. "When challenged they fled, with an Egyptian policeman (who patrol outside) hot on their tails. The policeman detained one and took him back to the police shack outside our camp. With all the rain, the Bedouin were probably rebuilding their homes, as they usually have to do after lengthy wet periods."
The material for this article was supplied by David Hartshorn of Queensland