Female deminers make playgrounds, fields safe again (Lebanon)

TIBNINE: Lamees Zein is a 30-year-old mother of two with a big smile, a pink mobile phone and chocolate biscuits for her visitors. If it wasn't for the body armour and helmet that she carries around with her, it would almost be possible to forget she spends her working life in minefields.


Zein is a battle clearance area site supervisor with Norwegian People's Aid, where she runs an all-female team of cluster-bomb clearance experts. Next week she will travel to Ireland to accept an international peace award on behalf of the global campaign to ban cluster bombs.

The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), a grouping of around 250 organizations opposed to the deadly weapons, was awarded the Tipperary Peace Prize after it successfully persuaded 95 countries to sign a treaty banning the production, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions in December last year.

Announcing the award, the Tipperary Peace Convention said it was "pleased to honor the work of the Coalition and its campaign against cluster bombs, which is certain to save thousands and thousands of civilian lives for decades to come." Previous recipients of the prize include former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Zein says she is delighted to have been selected to go to Ireland to collect the award. "I found out two weeks ago," she told The Daily Star on Wednesday. "It's really very special for me to go there. I hope this will give us the chance to clear more areas of cluster munitions."

Her team of female deminers describe themselves as "one family." When they break for lunch, they say how happy they are that their boss is going to accept the award on behalf of the campaign. "We are so proud, because this is a great honour. We would only be happier if the whole team could go," they say.

Zein seems almost embarrassed by the attention she is receiving and is happier answering questions about the task in hand, which currently is clearing a school playground of cluster bomblets fired by Israel during the summer 2006 war.

She is no stranger to the schoolyard. Before she got involved in demining two years ago, she worked as an English teacher for 5th and 6th graders. She jokes that running a classroom was more difficult than clearing mines, but says she wanted to help the country after the war. "I wanted to do something to help my land," she says.

A quiet town nestled in the rolling southern hills, Tibnine is a place where you can't escape the threat of unexploded ordnance left over from the war. In the sparsely decorated cafe in the center of the town, posters describing the different types of cluster munitions line the walls. At the school, the only people who can enter parts of the overgrown playground are demining experts in full protective gear.

The villagers were surprised when the women deminers arrived to begin their work. "At first people here were shocked when they saw us working in this type of job," Zein says, with an amused grin. "But when we started clearing their gardens, they were happy."

It is slow and dangerous work, and Zein admits that her family were concerned when she told them she was quitting life as a teacher to retrain as an explosives clearance expert. "At first, they were afraid, because we were hearing that many people were being killed and injured by cluster bombs," she says.

But as time passed, they got used to her unusual career change. "When I was coming back home and telling them all that happens at work, they began to relax a bit," she says. "We have training and equipment, so I don't feel afraid."

Zein may play down her work, but others in NPA make a point of saying how pleased they are that she has been asked to accept the award. "I'm extremely proud," NPA program manager Knut Furunes told The Daily Star.

But he insists that the hard work in clearing Lebanon of the millions of cluster bombs fired into the country during the 2006 war lay ahead, especially with the funding crisis that has hit mine actions organizations in Lebanon in recent months. "The number of clearance teams now is down to about twenty, so that will have a big impact on how long the work will take," he says.

On the morning of our interview a shepherd in nearby village was critically injured in a landmine explosion. The incident demonstrated the urgency of a problem the experts say still affects at least 12 million square meters in Lebanon.

At the current rate of clearance, ridding Lebanon of cluster bombs will take years. "With the teams we have on the ground now, we are looking at four years before we have cleared everything," Furunes says. "I hope the publicity will help us to get the funding we need."

Von: 26.03.2009, By Andrew Wander, www.dailystar.com.lb

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