Lebanon: Tackling the lethal legacy of conflict

News and Press Release
Originally published
Nearly 18 months after the 2006 war in Lebanon began, journalist Billy Briggs visited the country to see for himself the work MAG is doing to overcome its lethal legacy...

Waideh Turkieh holds up the ribbon to her chest as if it were a medal. "This is what killed my son," the Lebanese woman says. Waideh, a thin 50-year-old who looks tired and drawn and at least a decade older, is dressed all in black to mourn the death of her eldest son, Ali.

In August 2006, he was killed by a cluster bomb and the white ribbon she holds in her hand is from the explosive device that blew up in his face. "I call this the medal of death," Waideh says dryly. She offers me the ribbon, then tells me she will wear black for the rest of her life.

Ali, only 20 years old when he died, was her pride and joy and the "pillar" of the Turkieh family, she says. A considerate young man, he gave up his education in order to repair washing machines to help his mother and father financially.

When I ask what her son looked like Waideh fetches a framed photograph of the young man from another room. In the picture, Ali has short dark hair and mischievous eyes and he strongly resembles his father, Khaleel, who sits next to me drawing heavily on a cigarette.

Waideh, Khaleel and Ali's younger sister Hiba, who offers round some coffee, are still trying to come to terms with the loss of a beloved son and brother, and a war that destroyed their lives. The family live in the small village of Zawtar West in the rolling rugged hills of southern Lebanon, not far from the border with Israel.

Waideh points towards a hill where builders wearing red hard-hats are noisily constructing a house. "Our village was targeted and badly hit during the fighting and eight homes over there were completely destroyed. The Israelis were on a hill over there," Waideh says. The Turkiehs' home was hit by shells, too, and its concrete roof is still full of holes from missiles and flying shrapnel. In this home the emotional and physical scars are all too visible.

The 2006 Lebanon War, known locally here as the July War and in Israel as the Second Lebanon War, was a 34-day battle between, primarily, Hezbollah paramilitary forces and the Israeli military. The fighting started on 12th July 2006 and continued until a United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect on 14th August 2006.

The brief conflict killed more than a thousand people, most of whom were Lebanese civilians. It severely damaged Lebanese infrastructure and displaced nearly one million Lebanese and, across the border, between 300,000 and 500,000 Israelis.

Though the fighting stopped on 14th August 2006, the war continues to cast a dark shadow over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The UN estimates that Israel dropped four million bombs during the 34-day war. During the last 48 hours of the conflict alone, around one million cluster bombs were dropped into southern Lebanon. The consequences for the local population have been nothing less than catastrophic as huge swathes of land were rendered uninhabitable.

When the Lebanese refugees returned to their villages after the ceasefire they found thousands upon thousands of unexploded cluster bombs. They were littered everywhere: on roads, in gardens, fields, on roofs, in doorways, inside offices and shops, in homes, in children's bedrooms and in graveyards; there were even thousands of devices lodged in the foliage of plants and trees.

The war may have ended for Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters, but the Lebanese people had a lethal legacy to overcome. In the first four months after the ceasefire there were 209 casualties and since then hundreds more have been killed or maimed for life by cluster bombs.

Waideh takes back the white ribbon of the M42 cluster bomb and explains that the device that killed her son was lodged in a grapevine. "When we returned to the village after the ceasefire the men went out checking for cluster bombs. It was the first day after the ceasefire. Ali survived the war but was killed on the first day of peace. How could that be?" she says.

MAG began working in Lebanon in 2000 following the end of the First Lebanon War, so was already operational in the country when last year's war erupted.

Since the 2006 conflict ended, the priority for MAG has been on finding and dealing with unexploded ordnance (UXO), and in doing so saving lives and helping local communities to rebuild. In southern Lebanon alone there are more than 400 staff working for MAG, clearing between 300,000 and 500,000 square metres of contaminated land per month.

Above the village of Yohmor in southern Lebanon, a few miles from the border with Israel, stand the remains of Beaufort Castle. Built during medieval times by the Crusaders, the castle has been occupied by many armies, including Saladin, the Ottomans, the French, the Palestinians and the Israelis. This land has a turbulent history and Beaufort, one of the best-preserved Crusader castles in existence until badly damaged during battles in the 1980s and later in 2000, has borne witness to much of the mayhem.

Following the cessation of violence last year, MAG went into Yohmor, home to 5,500 people (Yohmor village - Imprisoned by bombs). Of the village's 600 homes, 260 were badly damaged during last year's war, including 40 houses that were completely razed to the ground by missiles.

Nearly half the population was left homeless. Yohmor was hit by thousands of shells and bombs and when the fighting ended the village was covered from one end to the other with unexploded munitions. Most of the roads were damaged and the surrounding land - home to olive groves up to 500 years old and an area vital to the economy for wild-herb collection and cattle grazing - was blanketed with u

As a result of the contamination there were two fatalities and three injuries in the immediate aftermath of the war, as residents attempted to clear their land of bombs. One man died trying to clear the entrance to a cemetery to bury a victim of the war. Every family who returned to their homes in Yohmor after fleeing the fighting faced profound and frightening changes, and a sudden realisation that life would never be the same again.

MAG was one of the first organisations on the scene and took part in the emergency clearance of bombs in the days immediately following the ceasefire.

Since then the focus has been on making private land safe enough for residents to farm again, as many people were left penniless because they could not safely access their olive groves and grazing land.

In total, at the time of writing, MAG has cleared 366,357 square metres of land and removed 2,610 explosive devices in the locality. MAG's work both here in Yohmor and in Zawtar West has been funded by the European Union's humanitarian aid department, ECHO.

I am invited to watch one of MAG's clearance teams in action and on the way we pass the cemetery where the villager was killed by an explosive device. As we walk, Youseff Hayek, MAG's site supervisor, explains that some of the cluster bombs are stuck 30 to 40 centimetres under the soil. He adds that work has not even started yet on clearing bombs from the thousands of cactus trees that cover the landscape.

He takes me downhill to an olive grove where one of his four teams are operating today. There is a row of eight men wearing face guards, blue flak jackets and yellow gloves. The men are on their knees. They are bent over, their plastic face-guards nearly touching the ground as the edge forward, checking for cluster bombs with their fingertips in the reddish brown earth.

"Many of the devices have gone rusty and are camouflaged by the terrain and rust-coloured rocks," Hayek says. Another problem the teams encounter is the weather. If it rains heavily, for example, over a period of time the devices move as the soil softens.

The search is painstakingly slow. I ask how much protection the men would have if a device exploded and Hayek explains that their clothing only shields really from flying rocks and debris. "The cluster bombs themselves are designed to pierce armour and can go through concrete 20cm thick. Some of the bombs contain copper cones which heat up and become molten metal, like plasma," Hayek says.

The men continue to move forward slowly. They sift through rocks, stones and bits of trees and bushes. The teams are trained to move together in a line, because if a bomb explodes then colleagues either side will take some of the blast and provide protection. The men always work on their knees, Hayek explains, because if they operated standing up their legs would be shredded with shrapnel in the event of an explosion.

It must be exhausting work both physically and mentally, particularly when it is stiflingly hot like today, so the teams take 10 minute breaks every hour in order to retain high concentration levels. When they stop for a rest I get the chance to talk with some of them. One of MAG's principles is to employ local people to carry out the clearance work - an ethos that engages the local community with the rebuilding of their own environment, and one that also provides employment and brings much-needed income to an area when the economy is on its knees.

Imad Issa, 41, says he is originally from the village of Sheimm but now lives in the nearby town of Nabatieh. "I have worked with MAG since 2001 and I really enjoy the work. We are all very proud to be doing this work," he says, wiping sweat from his face. His colleague, Abbas Shanrour, who's been with MAG for 11 months, nods his head in agreement.

Later, I meet with some of the Yohmor villagers. Wearing a white headscarf, Mahmoud Baraket, a 70-year-old farmer born and raised in Yohmor, laughs when he recounts his life.

"Every 20 years of my life some country has come and shaken Lebanon. My home was destroyed last year and I lost 10 beehives and 100 fowl. Some 50 bombs were found near this cow shed but thanks to the efforts of MAG I am now back working the land," he says.

At her daughter's home, Zainab Noura, 67, tells me she how lost her husband and one of her youngest sons in previous conflicts and that during the 2006 war her home was flattened. Her land was also contaminated with bombs but she hopes to return to work once MAG has finished clearing the area.

"I have lost nearly everything. We have had no financial help from the Lebanese government so you can imagine how hard our lives have been for the last year and a half. MAG is the only help we've had," she says.

In Zawtar West, the Turkieh family have endured similar motional turmoil since the end of the war as they've also not been able to return to their land yet because of contamination. "We lost our tobacco crops and olive fields and two cows. But we also lost our son," Waideh says. But here, too, the rebuilding process is taking place and MAG is enabling the community to return to some sort of normality.

We walk to the cemetery to where Ali is buried and Waideh and Khaleel point to the hills that have already been cleared of bombs so the rebuilding of homes can start. "It will take time...but we will recover," Waideh says.

Billy Briggs