"About 2,000 people have fallen victim to land mines since the first Israeli invasion in
1978" Habouba Aoun, Coordinator at LMRC
The army has stepped up its land-mine clearing activities since the liberation of the South but will not be able to complete the process without the support of local and international non-governmental organizations, participants at a workshop said on Tuesday.
Statistics cited by the army show that around 40 percent of the known minefields have been cleared, with tens of thousands of exploded devices destroyed. But casualties in land-mine accidents continue at an alarming pace.
Representatives from UN agencies, the European Union and different branches of the army were at the workshop.
“After the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories we were left with new urgencies to resolve the problem of land mines and unexploded bombs,” said General George Sawaya, Head of the National Demining Office.
“The immediate priorities are allowing the safe return of the displaced to their villages, clearing fields in order to facilitate the reconstruction of infrastructure and raising public awareness,” he continued.
Sawaya cited reviving tourist regions, clearing agricultural lands so that the areas’ inhabitants can become self-sufficient, and setting up emergency health services for possible future victims as other problems needed to be addressed. “Our aim is to determine the existence of all minefields in Lebanon and clear them so that we can guarantee economic reactivation in the area,” the general said.
Since it was established in 1998 as a transitional program involving NGOs and concerned ministries the National Demining Office, which is funded by the United States International Development program (USAID) and supported by the US-based World Rehabilitation Program, has been cooperating with the army to clear minefields.
“We’ve devised a nationwide action plan so that inhabitants of land-mine-prone areas can live normal lives again,” said the head of the demining office.
Colonel Khaled Naous, commander of the army’s Engineering Brigade, gave participants an overview of the geographic distribution of land mines around the country. Maps showing dangerous areas have changed over the years, he said.
“During the war, militias planted some mines. When the Israelis occupied the South, more were added and meteorological changes … have moved land mines underground,” Naous explained. Land mines can shift position in water-logged soil and can be washed away from their original locations by floods and melting snow.
The army has gathered information about the location of mines from NGOs, civilians and army reconnaissance missions, he said.
To illustrate the army’s methods of land-mine detection and clearing, Naous used photographs of a soldier wearing the protective attire and carrying a metal detector while crouching on the ground to link exposed land mines with explosives. The mines are generally blown up on the spot.
“But it’s sometimes hard to use the metal detection devices because of the nature of the Lebanese terrain,” Naous said.
Pinpointing the exact locations of land mines can also be difficult because there is little vegetation around the minefields “that could serve as landmarks, which makes drawing up revised maps difficult,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Roland Abu Jaoude of the NDO and the Engineering Brigade gave an in-depth presentation of the number of expected land-mine areas and described the process that citizens have to go through to make requests for demining.
“Clearing land mines is a very delicate situation because you feel you’re dealing with ghosts since you don’t see anything concrete and the land mines are susceptible to change,” Abu Jaoude stressed.
According to Abu Jaoude, of the 853 minefields that have been found, 335 have been cleared, 298 have not been cleared and 220 are in the process of being cleared. He added that 4,500 anti-tank devices, 20,000 anti-personnel mines and 41,000 unexploded ordinance and improvised explosive devices, such as home-made roadside bombs, have been destroyed.
He said that the army cordons off suspected minefields by erecting fences around them and blocking access roads.
“These areas won’t be reopened until we’re sure that every land mine has been cleared,” he said.
According to Habuba Aoun, coordinator at the Landmine Resource Center at Balamand University, 2,000 people have fallen victim to land mines since the first Israeli invasion in 1978, of which 1,200 survived.
“We have to set up a database of land-mine victims, surveying their socio-economic status and finding out what their needs are with the help of engineering and health students at our university,” said Aoun.
According to Aoun, 90 percent of all areas have been surveyed and the LRC has set up a website containing information collected about each district.
Since the liberation, Aoun and her team have already interviewed several families of victims and those injured by land mines. “Of the 13 villages surveyed so far, we’ve deduced that there are 38 survivors of land-mine blasts and 34 deaths,” she explained.
At a conference in Ibl es-Saqi last month, attended by NGOs and UNIFIL, they estimated that there are 220 villages and 21 farms in the South and western Bekaa which are still riddled with land mines. “Of these villages, the most infested is Jezzine, while Hasbaya has the most land mines on its farms,” she said, adding that since the Israeli withdrawal in May, land-mine accidents have killed six people and wounded another 21.
The joint NDO-WRF action plan is to hold seminars in the liberated villages in the South throughout the summer, including Bint Jbeil, Houla and Meiss al-Jabal. Experts, representatives from NGOs and army personnel will be talking to villagers. Scouts and students around the country will also be expected to participate in the awareness campaigns about the dangers of venturing into cordoned-off areas or suspected minefields.
“The army has already started distributing leaflets about land mines and victims to their personnel,” said Nadim Karam, director of World Rehabilitation Fund’s Lebanon office.
WRF will be ensuring that the South’s inhabitants become aware of how important their cooperation is, Karam continued. “It’s important for people to realize that the land mines stretch far further than just in the South,” Karam said, referring to a map of the country which indicates that almost one-third of the country is plagued with the devices.
Ekrem Berindic, UNICEF’s local coordinator, congratulated the army for its handling of the issue and pledged the support of the UN in countering land mines. “The first step is to let everyone, especially children, know about the dangers of land mines and ensure the coordination of local NGOs, governmental agencies and the international community, especially the UN,” he said.
A representative from UNIFIL’s Humanitarian Department, Colonel Mhayta Singh, said that a 500-strong Ukrainian battalion and 60 Swedish soldiers would be helping in the clearing operation. “Since we’re deployed in those areas in the South, we’ll be raising public awareness there and helping the army build a database,” the colonel explained.
UNDP’s Harold Vvie, a mine-clearing consultant who has been in Lebanon for a month, said he was impressed by the work that has been done but that there was still much more. “I’ve realized that the human resources are in the country but you need financial support, and that is what the international community and NGOs can do for you,” explained Vvie.
Sana Saliba, program coordinator at USAID, said that even though there is more interest from the international community, especially since the Israeli withdrawal, “there is a lack of unified effort.”
Since 1998, USAID has contributed around $1.2 million to NGOs and academics to help in the rehabilitation of land-mine victims and provide ways of detecting mines.
Saliba said that the purpose of the meeting was to explain what steps have been taken to clear areas filled with land mines and ways of speeding up the process.