South Lebanon Slowly Starts to Lose Its Mines
But Too Late For Some 


11 December 2000
by Robert Fisk

Mohamed Sowaid is nine and has multiple shrapnel wounds. His brother Ali – equally mutilated – is only five. Issam Missilmani is a 33-year-old fisherman who had his right foot and left hand blown off. 

Alaa Hussein is 17 and Mohamed Hijazi is 22; both were blown up, Mohamed losing his left foot. And they are just the mine casualties of southern Lebanon in one day this month.

In all, 11 civilians have been killed and at least 56 seriously wounded in the fields around their homes since the “Israeli” army retreated out of Lebanon in May, leaving behind 70,000 mines.

The figure is official. The four volumes of documents and minefield maps, which the withdrawing “Israeli” army handed to the United Nations after they ended their 22-year occupation of 10 per cent of Lebanon seven months ago are a history of warfare, of No 4 “Israeli” antipersonnel mines and No 10 plastic mines, of booby-traps and minefields atop minefields.

In all, the UN believes there are 130,000 mines and booby-traps and unexploded bombs scattered across the harsh, brown hills of southern Lebanon, some of them dating back to the French mandate and the Vichy French-Allied battles of the Second World War.

Fresh from 10 months in Kosovo, Don Macdonald, 46, from Forres in Grampian – after 22 years as an RAF bomb disposal officer – sits in his office at Naqqoura on the Lebanese-”Israeli” border with computer banks that show him the location of the tiniest bits of ordnance in the wadis and thickets of this dangerous countryside. The “Israelis” handed over a list of 288 booby-traps. At Kfar Roumane was "a [booby] trapped vest [flak jacket] and side charge", near Yohmor was "a trapped LAW [Light AntiArmour Weapon]". Both were left during the occupation for Hizbollah guerrillas to pick up.

Intriguingly, their location proves that the “Israelis” sent patrols right through the UN peace-keeping lines to leave these booby-traps close to the Litani river.

"So far, the UN's Ukrainian battalion has destroyed 2,135 mines to clear land used by UN troops. The Lebanese government has to de-mine most of southern Lebanon; and, so far, the authorities have scarcely started to fence off the minefields. One of the little boys so badly wounded had seen a television programme about mines and tragically decided to try his own hand at clearance.

There are Russian PMD-6 mines – left by the “Israelis” or the Palestinians – and French mines from 1947, left along the coast in the very last days of the mandate. In some places, “Israeli” minefields are planted on top of Second World War minefields, layers of Lebanon's terrifying history waiting to explode and re-explode under future generations. A three-man UN mine action coordination cell operates with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, its New Zealand boss, Greg Lindstrom, paying tribute to the detail of the maps the “Israelis” handed over, which included suspected minefields left by earlier occupiers.

"There's a peace dividend to all this," he says. "Clearing minefields means that people can come back to their lands. I saw this in Mozambique. It's a great feeling to see these people return to farm their land." But the task that faces Lebanon, let alone the UN, is awesome. Of the “Israeli” mines, 50,644 lie along the UN's "blue line" – roughly corresponding to the international frontier – while another 48 clusters of minefields, containing 7,529 devices, are placed elsewhere.

Around every “Israeli” artillery position and outpost of “Israel’s” now defunct South Lebanon Army militia lie acres of ordnance waiting to explode. Children regularly play in the old redoubts; at least 45 of these have minefields round them. More than 288 “Israeli” booby-traps – including bombs disguised as rocks – lie undefused among the rocks and vegetation.

Are they inherently evil things, these lethal little creatures amid the dark, beautiful hills? "All weapons are," Mr Lindstrom says. Mr Macdonald is more philosophical. "In the hands of someone in the military, used in a military sense, mapped and taken away, that's one thing. It's the mines that are unmapped and left to kill others. It's not the mine that's the problem. It's the people who use them."

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