Clearing Cluster Bombs and Landmines: Lebanon’s Long and Winding Road

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South Lebanon has the lion’s share; one third of the area was covered with cluster bombs. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rajana Hamyeh

Published Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Interview - The second meeting of states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions is taking place in Lebanon, home to millions of cluster bombs and landmines. Mohammad Fahmy of Lebanon’s Mine Action Center talks to al-Akhbar about the tough task of clearing them.

Lebanese Army General Mohammad Fahmy, chairman of the Lebanese Mine Action Center, knows by heart the names and types of cluster bombs and landmines scattered across southern Lebanon. They have killed over 3,000 Lebanese. Since Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, Fahmy has realized that the road to clearing the country from these weapons is a going to be a long and winding one.

What has the Lebanese Mine Action Center accomplished five years after Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon?

Even though we have not yet achieved what we aspire to, we have made much progress in the past five years. At the very least, we are now able to give an approximate date for the completion of land clearance. We have worked for years to identify contaminated areas and have drawn up a comprehensive technical survey. We have divided the land into 1,277 sectors, of which 815 have been cleared so far. We prioritized areas of social and economic value for obvious reasons.

What is your estimation of the area of contaminated land not cleared yet?

The estimated number of landmines is 400,000. The percentage of land still contaminated with landmines is 46 percent out of a total area of 95km2. The total area of land contaminated with cluster bombs was 55km2. The percentage of land still contaminated with cluster bombs is 18.2 percent while 36.7 percent has been cleared completely. The center’s work also dates back to the 1990s, following the Lebanese civil war, and the period after May 2000, when the Israelis were forced to end their occupation of southern Lebanon.

Lebanese Army General Mohammad Fahmy, knows by heart the names and types of cluster bombs and landmines scattered across southern Lebanon. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

What is the difference between these three periods, how does the type of contamination compare?

In the 1990s, the problem was restricted to landmines. Their clearance was very hard because the process of planting landmines was indiscriminate and not recorded on maps. Consequently, the survey phase of the work took a long time. This was compounded by the fact that the Lebanese army was working alone during that period. After the liberation of the south in 2000 and the Israeli war in 2006, cluster bombs were introduced in large quantities. However, the problem we faced after 2000 was not as serious as after the 2006 war, when Israel dropped no less than 4 million cluster bombs of ‘leftover’ ammunition over Lebanon. The result was a significant increase in the percentage of unexploded bombs -- up to 49 percent. Moreover, the fragmentation of a single container into hundreds of bomblets made it hard to determine their precise location.

What about their location?

In principle, South Lebanon has the lion’s share; one third of the area was covered with cluster bombs. As for landmines, which date back to the civil war, they can be found in Mount Lebanon and the north of the country, in addition to the south, of course.

When will the clearance work end? How much financial support do you require to complete the task?

We cannot assign a specific date. We can say though that land contaminated with cluster bombs will be cleared in 2016. As for landmines, they should be cleared by 2021. As for expenses, they are quite high. We need between USD 70 and USD 80 million to clear cluster bombs and USD 100 million to clear landmines.

What has changed since Israel handed over cluster bomb maps to the Lebanese army? What phase of work had you reached when the center received the maps?

Initially, we faced great difficulties in identifying the location of cluster bombs without the maps. This was due to the fact that Israel refused to hand over clear information about the locations of cluster bombs to Lebanon. So, the pace of work was quite slow at that time and it was about 3 years before we saw the maps. Later, Lebanon obtained the data from Israel through UNIFIL. Even though the data was accurate, its late arrival rendered it useless.

What about awareness campaigns?

There are currently two national committees working on awareness campaigns. The first, the National Committee for Awareness of the Dangers of Mines, works under the supervision of the awareness department in our center and involves various types of activities. The second committee specializes in the assistance and guidance of victims.

Speaking of injuries, how many injuries have been reported until now? What has changed between 2006 and 2011?

Injuries can be divided into three phases: from 1975 to 2000, from 2000 to 2006, and from 2006 to the present. The total number of victims since 1975 is 3,847, including 900 deaths and 2,941 injuries. From 2000 to 11 July 2006, we recorded 275 casualties, including deaths and injuries. From 14 August 2006 until now, the number of victims has reached 408, including 51 deaths (4 are children) and 357 injuries. Out of those injured, 275 were adolescents and 36 were children. To go into more detail, the number of injuries from 14 August to 31 December 2006 was 209. What is significant is that the number of casualties has declined gradually since 2006 due to awareness campaigns and clearing operations. The number of casualties was 95 in 2007 and dropped to 42 in 2008, 32 in 2009, 24 in 2010, and 6 so far in 2011.

Does the center cooperate with NGOs that work in the same field, or does it work separately?

When the center was founded in 1998, it was the only organization working in the field. But after the recurrent wars on Lebanon, local and international NGOs began to get involved. These organizations do not work in partnership with us; they work under our supervision, after we train their personnel.

What restrictions do you impose on organizations assisting you in these operations?

Generally, there are no restrictions on anyone. There are, however, some sensitive areas that the Lebanese army prefers to work on alone. These are areas where we prefer not to have non-Lebanese working for security reasons.

What are the main difficulties and challenges that the center faces today?

We have two main challenges. The first is our inability to follow up on the injured. The second, which is more serious, is funding. Funds provided by donor countries for our operations have diminished due to the global economic crisis. Moreover, the Lebanese army and the center do not receive the funds directly. They are granted either to the Lebanese government or to NGOs. Support for us comes from the Lebanese army, which provides us with personnel and specialized units. The funding of these units varies depending on how much donor countries give the NGOs. The army also has an account in the Lebanese Central Bank used to raise funds from the general public.

In light of the Second Meeting of the States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions taking place in Lebanon, what is the point, in your view, if the gathering only includes victim states?

The signing of this convention is in Lebanon’s interest. It protects Lebanon morally, given that it is the second most affected country by cluster bombs. But this is not enough. Lebanon, or any other country that suffers from cluster bomb munitions, will not be adequately protected as long as the four major producers (Russia, China, Israel, and the US) reject the convention and refuse to sign it. These countries are arms dealers after all, and slamming the door shut on a lucrative source of income is not in their interest.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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