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Conflict Incident Report
Kaag and Lassen tour demining operation in south Lebanon
United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag and Christina Lassen, the head of the delegation of the European Union to Lebanon, visited the area of Nabatieh Wednesday where efforts to clear unexploded ordnance are ongoing. The Lebanon Mine Action Center, staffed with personnel assigned to the Mine Action Program by the Lebanese Army, is at the forefront of clearance activities. According to center’s estimates, Israel dropped 4 million cluster bombs during the 2006 War, over 1 million of which are still dug into Lebanese soil. This is in addition to other types of explosive devices and those present prior to 2006.
In the framework of the Mine Action Program, LMAC aims to clear Lebanon of cluster bombs by 2020. According to LMAC director Ziad Nasr, however, removing land mines and other types of unexploded ordnance will take longer.
During Wednesday’s visit to the mountains around Nabatieh, which are currently being cleared in a joint effort between LMAC and the British nonprofit Mines Advisory Group, Kaag spoke of the need to “raise awareness on the importance of this critical issue and to ensure that Lebanon continues all its efforts with international support.”
The EU has been among the main donors behind demining activities in Lebanon. “We have been supporting [Lebanon’s demining activities] for the past 10 years with around 40 million euros [$45 million],” Lassen told The Daily Star during the trip. “We would like to see other donors, including Lebanese private donors, step in as well.”
Ten years have gone by since the 2006 War with Israel, which saw one of the most concentrated fire of cluster bombs in the area. According to the organizations involved, demining activities are still an urgent matter.
Dave Willey, country director at MAG Lebanon, referred to the 17 square kilometers of land that still need to be cleared as a “forgotten problem” since funding for these projects has decreased in recent years.
Clearing efforts in Nabatieh have been drawn out due to the area’s large population, geography and soil composition. Moreover, the high presence of metals in the soil – including domestic scrap and fragments from previous detonations – makes it necessary to clean the land before employing metal detectors.
According to MAG Technical Operations Manager Mark Russell, some ordnance fired by Israel in 2006 has minimal or no metal components and is thus harder to find. Certain cluster munitions also contain copper cones that may be projected to a distance of over 1 kilometer if detonated. This poses an operational problem for MAG, especially in densely populated areas where securing a wide perimeter is difficult.
Unexploded ordnance has a disproportionate impact on local agricultural communities in the Bekaa Valley, south Lebanon and Mount Lebanon, where cluster munition contamination has led to pollution and fears for personal safety.
According to a survey conducted by MAG in 2013 of 1,252 individuals living in affected areas, 66 percent of respondents indicated fear levels of three or higher on a five-point scale.
Despite growing levels of awareness over hazards, 48 percent of respondents who reported entering contaminated land said they did this on a daily or weekly basis, mainly for agricultural production.
Over 54,000 Syrian refugees living in contaminated communities are at a heightened risk of falling victim to unexploded ordnance. Most of them have not received risk education yet. In the survey, one respondent named as Abou Tarek said he “fled from Syria not to die from cluster bombs in Lebanon.”
After areas are deemed clear, previously contaminated land across Lebanon can be safely used for agricultural production and private investment, breathing new life into local economies. But those who have been injured face daily struggles to find work and come to terms with their conditions.
The hills surrounding Nabatieh are now color-coded – white-topped pickets mean safety while red demarcates hazardous areas – but in 1983 farmers like Mohammad Hasan Ayoub had no indication of the dangers they faced. The 48-year-old father of four still vividly remembers the day he lost two limbs.
“I did not see anything on the ground,” Ayoub said, during the officials’ visit Wednesday. “The last thing I remember from that day is feeling my leg sink into the soil. Then everything went black.” The land mine ripped off an arm and leg, leaving Ayoub unable to work.
Since 1975, 3,847 people have been killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordnance, according to LMAC figures. Some of them have sought free medical treatment at the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped in Sarafand, where Kaag and Lassen met with founder Randa Assi Berri.
A group of land mine survivors who received treatment at LWAH’s center later formed a football team in defiance of their disabilities. The team’s creator Mohammad al-Haj, 51, lost most of a leg as a result of unexploded ordnance and went through over 30 operations as a consequence. “There is no person in the world who would like to see their limb amputated, but you have no choice: Either you do it or you die,” Haj told The Daily Star from the LWAH center. Society is still ignorant on the matter, Haj said, claiming that he often finds himself ridiculed or discriminated against when looking for work.
“You have to accept yourself before society can accept you,” he said, adding that such self-acceptance is in itself a long journey. “In the end, in Lebanon, this can happen to anyone who goes for a walk.”