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Lebanon: where childhood games are dangerous

02-11-2006 Feature

Thirteen-year old Khodor will be discharged from the hospital in Marjayoun soon when his aunt comes to pick him up. Khodor's 11-year-old brother was killed in the same incident when the boys were collecting firewood and a cluster submunition exploded next to them.

Unfortunately, the story of Khodor and his brother is a familiar one today in the southern part of Lebanon. Every week the UN's Mine Action Coordination Centre publishes new figures of civilians injured and wounded by unexploded ordnance. Since the beginning of the ceasefire on August 12 more than 140 casualties, including 20 deaths, have been reported. Most of these have been caused by cluster submunitions.

" We went to neighbouring Syria when the hostilities broke out in July to flee the fighting. When we came back after the ceasefire, we found our house damaged, but we thought that we were lucky to escape alive. We thought we were safe now, and then this accident happened " , says the boys'aunt.

While it is still too early to assess the full impact of cluster munitions in Lebanon, many of the towns, villages and agricultural land in southern Lebanon are littered with unexploded cluster submunitions. These represent a significant threat for displaced civilians returning to their homes as well as to those conducting relief and reconstruction efforts.

To prevent further accidents, clearance must take place as quickly as possible and civilians must be warned of the dangers posed by these weapons.

Many agricultural areas are heavily contaminated—with submunitions seen in olive branches and citrus trees. As a result, the region's agricultural capacity is also likely to suffer. This could have serious consequences for the civilian population, as agriculture is the main source of income in southern Lebanon. The high level of contamination pose s a great challenge for clearance organizations.

Only a short distance away from the Lebanese/Israeli border, in a small village where the destruction of infrastructure during the recent hostilities is still very visible, another little boy, 6 year-old Youssef, was playing with his friends when a cluster submunition exploded and wounded him. His three friends suffered only minor injuries, but he will be marked for life:

" He found what he thought was a small perfume bottle and threw stones at it with his friends. The children had been warned about unexploded bombs. But he picked it up and it exploded as he was throwing it at a wall " , his mother explains.

Now, Youssef has started school again but his left arm and leg hurt when he comes home. His teacher has asked him to tell his story to his classmates in order to warn them of the threat.

Youssef's father adds that raising awareness on the danger of explosive remnants of war is essential, even if, for Youssef, it is too late.

The area-wide impact of cluster munitions and the persistently high numbers which fail to explode as intended raise serious questions about whether cluster munitions can be used in populated areas in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL); in particular in accordance with the rule of distinction between civilians and combatants, and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.

Already in 2000, the ICRC proposed prohibiting the use of cluster munitions against any military objective located in an area with a concentration of civilians.