Lebanon's invisible enemy lies in wait. Over half a million mines are yet to be cleared all over country
After decades of war, South Lebanon is now at peace. Yet, the land containing the hopes and dreams of a new Lebanon has been poisoned by an invisible enemy buried under the earth. "Landmines stand-by for a lifetime waiting for their victim," said Jihad Samhat, Quality Assurance Officer at the United Nations Mine Coordination Center (MACC). "They are considered by some as the best soldiers because they never sleep, they don't need food, rest, or water," he added.
For people attempting to rebuild their lives through the fruit of their lands, every field is suspect, every footstep a potential disaster.
"The problem with the mine is that it doesn't know who its victim is. It can be a soldier or a child," Samhat said. "Mines are not biodegradable, so they could sit in the ground forever waiting for their victim."
As a result of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, combined with Israel's 22-year occupation, it is estimated approximately 550,000 landmines were laid throughout the country. The areas most affected were Mount Lebanon, Batroun, the Bekaa Valley and Southern Lebanon.
"Operating within MACC are two components, the Lebanese Army and the United Nations," Samhat said. "While the UN performs de-mining activities in the South, the Lebanese Army takes care of the other regions."
Unexploded ordnance (UXO), including cluster bombs and booby traps, continue to pose a real threat to local populations, UN staff and aid workers, particularly in the South.
UN de-mining officer Abbas Maatouk recently lost his arm while on duty.
"The dangerous area in South Lebanon is the former Israeli-controlled area in the far south of the region," said Tekamiti Gilbert, UN Chief of Operations, MACC, in Tyre.
"This area was at one point the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon," he said.
From May 2002 to May 2004, the recorded minefields in and around the village areas of this buffer zone extending from Naqoura to Marjayoun were cleared under the Operation Emirates Solidarity (OES) project, and coordinated by the Mine Action Coordination Center Southern Lebanon.
"OES helped in clearing over 60,000 landmines and UXO from South Lebanon," Samhat said. "Approximately 5 million square meters of land have been reclaimed for the people."
However, Samhat said the mine clearance operations desperately need funds.
"There are still over half a million mines waiting to be cleared from Lebanese territories," he explained. "Those are mines that we have records of, but there might be many more unrecorded."
"We have been trying to get more donor money from various countries to keep on continuing to clear mines with the same productivity as before, but this is not happening anymore," he said.
According to Gilbert, some $15 million is needed to clear up the remaining mines in South Lebanon.
"The lack of funds is a big problem," Tekamiti said. "Currently we only have three de-mining teams working in the South, two operating manually and one mechanically. At this rate, things go really slow."
"Meanwhile more and more victims are maimed and killed by the mines, especially children," he added.
Nicholas Guest, from the UN Mine Advisory Group in Nabatiyeh, noted de-mining helps the people have confidence in their land again.
He said that landmines have been found hidden under rocks and laced in rock walls in South Lebanon for instance.
The southern border, or "Blue Line," between Lebanon and Israel is by far the most affected area with an estimated 347,000 anti-personnel (AP) and anti-vehicle/anti-tank (AT) mines. "It is the most mine-infected area in the whole world," he explained.
Some, but not all of the border minefields are fenced and marked with mine warning signs. Too dangerous to be accessed by civilians, these areas are exclusively patrolled by UN peacekeepers and observers.
While the mines laid in South Lebanon were mostly planted by Israelis, those in the rest of Lebanon are the handiwork of the country's various military fractions, with some landmines dating back to the French Mandate.
According to mine experts, the nature of the landmines found on Lebanese territory is predominantly pressure activated blast mines.
"Demining is a very hard and delicate task," Guest said. "Mines are very nasty - one mistake is almost your last one. Brave men risk their lives everyday out there. They're very brave."
Von: 21 November 2005, http://www.dailystar.com.lb by Jessy Chahine