Israeli cluster bombs in Lebanon continue to kill and maim civilians


Life among Israeli cluster bombs in Lebanon
Life among Israeli cluster bombs in Lebanon
Hassan Bzieh was just a toddler when an Israeli soldier fired the rocket that, nine years later, would tear through him.

For years, the cluster bomblet had not detonated, until one March day when Hassan, his twin brother and several of their cousins came across it on the way home from a swim.

The delayed blast sent all of them to the hospital, where Hassan’s parents waited as teams of medics fought to keep the kids alive.

Nearly a decade since Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, cluster bombs that were dropped on southern Lebanon during the Israeli retreat continue to kill and maim civilians.

Hassan, 13, does not remember the explosion, which took place in a valley not far from the south Lebanese village of Zibqin, where he lives. He does not remember the blast, nor the two hours he lay in the dirt as rescue teams struggled to reach the remote spot.

But Nabih, his twin brother, whose left leg was shredded by the blast, remembers the moment vividly.

As the dust cleared, Nabih looked over to see a chunk of dull metal protruding from Hassan’s blood-soaked face, and his abdomen ripped open.

“I thought he was dead,” Nabih recalled. “I left him there. I had to help my cousins; they were crying.”

While Lebanese citizens have faced the risk of this nightmarish holdover of war since 2006, the start of the Syrian civil war five years later marked a new era of suffering.

Four million cluster munitions were dropped during the last days of the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, an estimated one million of which did not explode.

Now, in southern Lebanon, it is estimated that 704 hazardous sites remain, spread across 15.23 square kilometres.

“Why isn’t south Lebanon clear of unexploded ordnance?” asked Bekim Shala, director of the demining non-governmental organisation Mine Action Group (MAG)’s operations in Lebanon. “It’s very simple: It’s the funding.”

While international attention following the war with Israel brought some financial support for Lebanon in the conflict’s immediate aftermath, the funding soon slowed.

For MAG, the organisation leading demining efforts in Lebanon, its work was necessarily laborious but sustainable in the initial years after the war.

But in 2011, the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon changed that.

“I thought that this would be an opportunity to clear up the ordnance, as the refugees are also affected. But no, we’ve started losing funding as a result,” Shala told Al Jazeera.

With the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world, Lebanon has been one of the focal points for humanitarian aid since 2011.

Even though the relief effort is facing its own financing struggles, funding for projects that predate the Syrian war has been hit even harder.

“I think that the Syria refugee issue is being prioritised over everything else,” Shala said. “Although we are on the [UN’s] Lebanese Crisis Response Plan, we just don’t seem to be able to get the funding compared to other organisations providing shelter.”

Ali Bzieh (no relation to Hassan Bzieh), a council official in Zibqin who has helped coordinate some local demining efforts, knows the lack of funding means that more explosions are likely.

“Lebanon’s financial deficit is slowing the [demining] process down. It’s not going to take days or months; it’s going to take years,” he said.

In 2011, the Lebanese government had initially implemented a deadline to clear southern Lebanon of unexploded ordnance by 2016.

Unable to fulfil this commitment, the government has since pushed back its target to 2019.

Shala pinned this failure to the demining effort’s “significant drop in capacity” since 2011 – which he believes is a direct consequence of the Syrian war.

The Syrian war’s effects on the threat of unexploded ordnance in Lebanon are not limited to funding. Since 2011, Syrian refugees have spread across Lebanon, including the country’s south.

Syrian farmers or refugees desperate for work in one of the few professions open to them have flocked to southern Lebanon’s farms.

The pressure on land use and these new residents’ ignorance of the threat and location of landmines have led to more casualties.

Since 2011, the rate of injuries and deaths caused by unexploded ordnance began to climb in southern Lebanon, reversing a downward trend observed since 2007.

From a low of six incidents in 2011, 24 took place in 2013. After a slight drop in 2014, there have already been 19 incidents this year.

Extensive landmine education programmes in southern Lebanon, run by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and Lebanese army troops, are credited with saving countless lives.

However, much of this support is not available to Syrians living on the margins of Lebanese communities, rendering them more vulnerable to the hidden danger.

According to Shala, “Refugees are compounding the problem because they really have no idea where the mines are.”

Yet many Lebanese farmers – eager to make use of the influx of Syrian labour into the area – are returning to their still-contaminated fields, ignoring warnings from mine awareness programmes and UN peacekeepers.

“Farmers haven’t been able to access lands for nearly 10 years now. They are really frustrated,” Shala said. “Cluster munitions have really contaminated some of the poorest areas of Lebanon. Most of these people really depend on agricultural activities.

“Fifty percent cannot access [their fields] because it’s unsafe, but half of these have decided to access lands because they have no other choice,” Shala added.

“If you live in a village where you can’t access your lands, you live in poverty.”

The Bzieh twins’ father has farmed his lands in Zibqin all his life. While he admits that life has never been easy there, he described the Syrians living in the community as both a blessing and a burden.

“The influx of foreigners is a weight upon us,” Mohammad Bzieh said. “But they’re not sitting around doing nothing. They’re helping with the farms, increasing productivity.”

In 2012, Mohammad himself fell victim to a cluster bomblet, suffering shrapnel injuries to his arm while harvesting crops on land that he had been using for six years.

Others have been injured upon returning to contaminated land, encouraged by the availability of cheap Syrian labour.

But Mohammad, a tobacco farmer, bears no animosity towards the Syrians, alongside whom he now lives.

“Tobacco is hard work,” he said. “Since we have more workers, we can produce more, and both of us [Lebanese and Syrians] can benefit.”

Despite failed efforts to free his homeland of bombs, Ali Bzieh harbours no ill will towards the sluggish international demining campaign. He directs these feelings to the south – towards Israel.

“We call the [bomblets] the ‘hidden enemy’. The soldiers died during the war, but the mines keep on hurting people,” he said.

“I think people have forgotten how intense the Israeli bombing of Lebanon was,” added Shala. “There were more cluster bombs dropped in Lebanon in 33 days than anywhere else in the world, really.”

For the people of Zibqin, the explosions across southern Lebanon are an all-too-regular reminder of the horrors of the war they survived.

But with senior Israeli military officials recently promising “no restraint” in a potential future invasion of the country, residents in southern Lebanon live under the shadow of war.

Looking out over his village, Ali Bzieh remained stoic: “If the battle is between good and evil, then whatever happens, good will win.”

Al Jazeera