Imprisoned by bombs

Sutton of British-based Mines Advisory Group describes a day's work with explosives experts in southern Lebanon.


Every few metres in the hillside village of Yohmor you come across some kind of unexploded ammunition or a cluster bomb. It's on a hillside next to the Litani River, 10 km southeast of Nabatiye and only 5 km from the Israeli border, and many villages in this area were repeatedly attacked by Israeli aircraft and artillery and reduced to rubble.

When a team from Mines Advisory Group first visited on the day after the Aug. 14 ceasefire, they found bomblets littering the ground from one end of the village to the other. They were on the roofs of all the houses, in all the gardens and across all the roads and paths. Some were inside houses, after landing through the widows or through holes blasted in the roof by artillery and aircraft.

A lot of people returned right after the ceasefire, but many of them quickly left again when they found their homes reduced to rubble and covered in explosives.

Iyad Olliek, deputy head of the municipality, says: "People were distraught. Many of their houses were completely destroyed and it was too dangerous to walk anywhere. A woman was blown up on the fist day trying to see what was left of her house. Only a few stayed here, most went away again."

MAG has been working in Lebanon since Israel last withdrew in 2000, and its four teams are now working 12-hour days, six days a week, in coordination with the U.N. Mine Action Centre. It's the only international organisation dealing with the unexploded ordnance problem, and plans to quadruple its capacity over the next two weeks.

Given the limits of what a small number of people can do, MAG divides the teams' work into three phases. First they clear roads and paths and inside populated houses. Phase two is clearing about five metres around the houses. And Phase three is clearing through the whole village.

It's a slow process, and the explosives can get anywhere - even in trees. We've been told that boy in a nearby village was killed picking grapes, and another boy died picking apples out of a tree.

Yesterday was a typical day for the team working in Yohmor. After nine days in the village, phase one has been completed and a team is progressing through the village on phase two.

At 6:30 am the team arrives at the MAG base in Nabatya and prepares their equipment. Half an hour later they've got the vehicles loaded up, and head for Yohmor.

Twenty minutes later, the team pulls up, and a woman called Haifa is already waiting. She knows her house is next to be cleared. "I have been waiting to go in the house for ages," she tells them. "I want to sleep here but I am scared." Magnus, MAG's technical field manager, tells her it will be finished in a few hours.

The team unloads the equipment, test their radios, and put on protective clothing. Part of the team heads for another area of the village to start looking for explosives, which they will mark so they're ready to be destroyed. The rest prepare for the first demolition of the day.

They've found 32 explosives in Haifa's house, and they're going to blow them up. Team leader Hayek and sentries with radios set up a safety cordon making sure that everyone is safely away.

After the all clear, Magnus presses a button on a loud hailer and a siren blares. Hayek attaches a detonator to the cable and places it on the explosive. There's a radio countdown, and a loud explosion reverberates around the village.

Magnus says a chill ran down his spine at this point. "I heard singing in the house. (It thought) there must be a child in the house even though I had checked it." Running to the noise, he finds a singing teddy bear with flashing lights for eyes sitting on a bed.

Every explosion set off the bear, but the house is cleared by lunch time.

MAG works closely with the local authorities. Every day a representative arrives with a list of requests and a pot of coffee. Today they ask for a funeral hall to be checked and cleared ready for a funeral the next day.

After carefully explaining to Haifa which areas were cleared and which were not, the team moves on to the hall.

On the way, two distressed-looking women standing in the remains of a house call to us for help. Sisters Sinka and Khadigeh had come home to look for the papers that will prove the house was theirs, so they can get compensation from local authorities to start rebuilding.

But they've found themselves trapped. Sinka screams: "There are bombs here - all around!" The team clears a path to the house, finding and marking three explosives, and the sisters get out safely.

Families have a say in what most needs to be made safe. At this stage the team usually clears about five metres around the houses, but if there are a children around then that's taken into account and they go up to fences and walls.

Magnus says villagers understand not everything than be cleared yet, and set their own priorities: "People might say that a path to the chicken shed is more important than the vegetable garden," for example.

As the team packs up at the end of the day, municipal official Iyad arrives to see how the work's going. He's pleasantly surprised, saying: "We thought it would take years to clear this." He says he felt as if the village was doomed, and thought it would take years before rebuilding could start. "A man from Hizbollah tried to help by clearing the bombs but he was blown up and he died," Iyad says.

"We are so happy to see it can quickly be dealt with. This is hard, dangerous work and costs money to do. We are so grateful. Now our village has a future… We can rebuild and we are ready now to start - but we cannot clear the bombs."

As the team starts driving out of the village, a man stops us on the road. He wants help clearing a path to the graveyard and making sure it's safe to dig a new grave.

"I have to bury my father tomorrow," he says. The team unpacks the equipment, and gets on with the job. It's another long day in Lebanon.

Von: 29.08.06,

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