South Lebanon may be free of Israeli troops but it remains littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), which have already claimed the lives of 6-year-old Alaa Adnan Madi and 14-year-old Lama Ahmad Hamadi, and wounded 15 people in the past week alone.
The problem of mines in Lebanon is no novelty, but the liberation of the South brought with it a new danger, with an influx of people returning to their villages or visiting the region for the first time.
In their excitement, people parked their cars on roadsides and posed for photographs with abandoned tanks and artillery or tore down signs written in Hebrew, including signs warning of minefields.
Such behavior put people and their adventurous children at great risk and revealed the need for large-scale land mine and UXO awareness campaigns. Parallel to the army’s efforts in mine clearance in the liberated south and its northern border, awareness is important in preventing accidents.
International organizations have worked closely with local NGOs and community leaders in an effort to create awareness about mines around the country. But in light of the recent withdrawal, emergency task forces were set up to focus special attention on the villages in or near the liberated zone.
One of the programs already in existence was established by Save the Children Sweden in cooperation with Save the Children US, which held a three-day training program for 24 young volunteers in Tyre in mid-April.
The volunteers, who come from STC Youth Clubs in Sidiqin, Zibqin, Srifa, Deir Kifa, Sidon and Tyre, as well as a number of local youth organizations, were instructed in mine awareness by the Lebanese Army’s National De-mining Bureau and STC trainers who had attended a mine-awareness conference in Yemen in 1998.
Similarly, the World Rehabilitation Fund has financed mine-awareness projects here since 1998 but events prompted it to mobilize to make more of an impact in the country’s southern region.
“We’re printing flyers, stickers and posters to be distributed by the Red Cross in the South and the western Bekaa,” said WRF’s land-mine project coordinator Toufik Rizkallah. The Red Cross will also be replacing mine warning signs, Rizkallah said, while warning brochures were being distributed in Rashaya by the Vision Association for Development, Rehabilitation and Care.
WRF emergency meetings began last week, with lectures held in Jibsheet and in high schools in Qaroun. The Scouts and Red Cross workers in Tyre also got a crash course in mine-awareness last Saturday.
Explaining the STC’s focus on training for children, Christine Nelke, the mine-awareness program officer in Lebanon, said: “Children are the most common victims of land mines and UXO. This is because these things attract children’s curiosity.”
Newly trained STC youth volunteers return to their communities and formulate mine-awareness programs together with children from their youth clubs and with the help of leading members of their community.
“STC doesn’t believe in intervening as outsiders to lecture people about the dangers of mines,” explained Nelke. “We try to involve key people in the community, like health workers, educators and religious personalities.” Such people command respect and credibility in their communities and are more likely to have an impact on others.
The STC is also an advocate of the child-to-child educational approach, which, according to Kamal Shayya, community development specialist at STC-US, is a faster way to spread information.
As its name suggests, it elicits children’s participation in their own learning process. Photos, videos, games, drawing, storytelling and role-playing are some of the less traditional educational methods used by STC to change children’s attitudes and behavior toward mines and UXO.
After identifying community needs, youth club members collect information from their environment, analyze it and plan their own mine-awareness programs. They implement the program in their environment, spreading the warning message to parents, siblings and friends. Finally, they evaluate the success of their work.
Experience has shown that when children are asked to think through the mine problem and discover their own solutions, sound behavior and attitudes are more likely to result.
The warning message varies slightly for different age groups, depending on their intellectual development, but anyone in an area where it was suspected there could be mines should heed the following rules:
• ask for the safe path
• stay on the safe path
• if you find something unusual, don’t touch it!
• mark a suspected mine with a light object
• report your finding
• keep out of signed mined areas
• recognize warning signs
• recognize warning clues
“There’s no use raising awareness if nothing is done about the mines,” said Heba Hajj, STC-US’s Education Program Coordinator. “That’s why it’s very important to notify someone, preferably the army, when you find a mine or UXO.”
Without reporting, which assists in the army’s mine-clearance task, land cannot be declared safe or put to use.
“Farmland, grazing pastures and roads remain inaccessible and useless if there are mines on them,” said Nelke, highlighting another facet of the mine problem.
For the time being, it is highly recommended that everyone visiting the south to stay away from fields or unpaved roads. If these can’t be avoided, it is good idea to know the key indicators that there are mines in the vicinity, say Hajj and Shayya. These are:
• mounds of earth
• electric cables on the ground
• protruding metal
• planted stick or pile of stones (may be a mark left by others)
• bare patches in otherwise grass-covered terrain
• anything irregular in the land’s topography
“We all knew the Israelis would eventually leave,” Nelke said. “This is why we began preparing, with the conference in Yemen, in 1998.”
Although good results have been achieved though the youth club awareness projects, especially in the villages of Zibqin, Saida and Tyre, Nelke felt that the awareness campaigns were not being implemented fast enough now that access to the south has opened up.
“It’s natural that people want to explore the south,” said Hajj, “but the role now of mine-awareness workers is to quickly spread danger warnings to people.”