Lebanon’s mine-clearing effort described as ‘success story’
Beirut - The bomb that exploded on a sunny morning in May ripped off the legs and one hand of the Syrian boy. The incident did not occur in war-torn Syria but in southern Lebanon where the 14-year-old was helping his refugee family in a tobacco field when the remnant from Lebanon’s past wars went off.
Lebanon has been plagued by landmines since its 1975-90 civil war and subsequent Israeli occupation. It faced unprecedented contamination levels from cluster munitions when Israel dropped an estimated 4 million bomblets in the final hours of the 34-day war against Lebanon in July 2006.
Many years after the guns had fallen silent, however, unexploded remnants of war still kill and maim people, mostly civilians.
The Lebanon Mine Action Centre (LMAC) has been carrying out and coordinating the painstaking task of demining and clearing Lebanon of unexploded ordinance (UXO) since 1998. It has cleared and destroyed up to 70% of the munitions but the risk would remain even after a UXO-free Lebanon is achieved.
“The dangers posed by UXO stay forever,” said LMAC Director Brigadier-General Ziad Nasr. “They are discovering unexploded bombs from the second world war in Europe. In Jezzine (southern Lebanon) we found a bomb from the second world war, which we detonated. We should always deal carefully with bombs because they all explode, even if they have been sitting there for ages.”
Different types of UXO, including anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, mortars, tank shells and cluster bombs, contaminate Lebanon but there is no accurate count of the number of such devices, Nasr said.
“The lack of accurate mapping of landmines, which were planted by the different warring parties, rendered the task of demining much more complicated,” he said. “Also, erosion and mud movement displaced many landmines over the years, adding to the problem. Some of those planted along the Blue Line are charted.”
Nasr explained that the Lebanese Army has completed a “non-technical survey” of the national territory to identify contaminated areas. “I can say confidently that we now know by 90% — if not 100% — where the minefields are,” he said.
Lebanon, a signatory of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which bans the use, production and stockpiling of cluster bombs and calls for destruction of existing stocks, hopes to become cluster-free by 2021.
Southern Lebanon is the area most contaminated with cluster bombs. At least 25% of the munitions do not explode on impact and pose a threat for decades after they have been dropped. An estimated 908 people have been killed and 2,842 wounded by UXO in Lebanon since 1975, LMAC figures state.
Mine clearance is painstakingly slow and dangerous work. Deminers must abide by strict regulations and are flanked by ambulances and medics. LMAC has been working in mine clearance with several international demining organisations, including Britain’s Mines Advisory Group, the Norwegian People’s Aid, France’s Handicap International and DanChurchAid and local demining organisations Peace Generations Organisation for Demining and Lebanese Association for Mine and Natural Disaster Action.
Demining is only one of the humanitarian tasks assumed by LMAC. “Our work is based on five pillars,” Nasr said. “In addition to clearing mines, the other pillars are mine risk education, mine victim assistance, advocacy and destruction of stockpiles.”
While Lebanon has no cluster bomb stockpile to destroy, LMAC has been active with civil society in raising awareness about mine risks, Nasr said. “This is done through awareness campaigns for civilians, in the schools and universities, about precautions that should be taken to avoid contaminated areas, how to alert the army, etc…,” he said.
Victim assistance and rehabilitation is another important task assumed by LMAC in cooperation with civil society organisations.
“We help victims reintegrate in the society through providing prosthesis, helping them find jobs and vocational training and securing financial support for them to start businesses. We have 12 local NGOs some of them are national centres for rehabilitation across the country working with mine victims,” Nasr said.
Lebanon’s mine-clearing endeavour “is definitely a success story,” he stressed. “We are taken as a good example for demining internationally.”
An Arab Regional cooperation programme managed by LMAC works to improve knowledge, exchange experiences and promote better mine action practices throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Training on how to handle unexploded remnants of war is being set up in a Lebanese Army base outside Beirut. “We will be conducting training in three languages but the programme will be mainly dedicated to Arab countries. We have already prepared the training curricula, the lessons and course material,” Nasr said. The centre is expected to open in September offering training for military personnel and civilians.
With 17 out of 22 Arab countries contaminated with landmines and other unexploded munition, the effort could not be more timely.