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Libya: unexploded munitions scar bodies and minds

26-03-2012 Feature

Libya’s recent conflict has left behind huge quantities of unexploded shells, mines and ammunition. The temptation to play with these items is sometimes irresistible, and the consequences often tragic. The ICRC and the Libyan Red Crescent are working hard to remove these devices and to warn people of the danger. For some, it is already too late.

A late February afternoon in Sirte, Libya. Hosam Aldeen Alsonosi, 14, is playing with his brother in the golden sunshine, his left hand and foot enveloped in bandages. Hosam’s little brother is taking care of him, as he has been in a wheelchair for over two months.

Hosam used to play football. To him, anything on the road was a football. "On 12 December 2011, I was playing football when a plastic object caught my attention. I picked it up and threw it at the wall. It exploded." Hosam lost three fingers and two toes. He can no longer run around and play as he used to. His new favourite toy is his mobile phone, which at least allows him to communicate with his friends, and play games without asking for help.

The recent conflict in Libya has changed the lives of people like Hosam. Cities such as Sirte have been hard hit. Heavy fighting took place here for more than a month, leaving unexploded devices all over the city and the surrounding farmland. Empty cases litter the sand, but the danger comes from the unexploded ordnance that lies in fields and homes.

Adults are tempted to ransack abandoned tanks for parts they can sell, ignoring the risk posed by ammunition still on board. Children are more attracted by the color of unexploded munitions. Jennifer Reeves is in charge of what the ICRC calls “weapon contamination” work in Libya: clearing unexploded ordnance and raising awareness of the risks it poses. "Most victims are between 10 and 22 years old,” she explains. “In a village on the outskirts of Sirte, three members of the same family – a brother, his sister and their grandmother – lost their lives when a child brought an explosive device home."

The ICRC’s efforts to clear unexploded ordnance in Libya and warn people of the dangers started in April 2011. Staff began operations in the east shortly after fighting ceased in cities such as Benghazi and Ajdabiya. Later, one team went to the Nefusa Mountains and another to Sirte.

The ICRC is putting up posters and distributing leaflets explaining the risks of explosive ordnance, and training Libyan Red Crescent volunteers to pass on the message. A recent radio campaign told people about the risks and explained how to report any devices they found. "Radio is an effective way of reaching both residents and displaced persons," said Ms Reeves. The team in Sirte collected 2,600 unexploded devices between January and the end of February.

Some parts of Sirte are still affected, restricting movement. How long it will be before the city is free of explosive ordnance, no one knows, but these devices will affect the inhabitants for a long time.

Meanwhile, Hosam is starting to deal with the physical and psychological scars. A process that will take a lifetime.


Photos

Sirte, Libya. Hosam plays with his mobile phone. He lost three fingers and two toes playing with an unexploded device. 

Sirte, Libya. Hosam plays with his mobile phone. He lost three fingers and two toes playing with an unexploded device.
© ICRC / X. Hu / v-p-ly-e-00320

Sirte, Libya. The ICRC weapon contamination team and Libya Red Crescent staff count unexploded ordnance they have collected. 

Sirte, Libya. The ICRC weapon contamination team and Libya Red Crescent staff count unexploded ordnance they have collected.
© ICRC / X. Hu / v-p-ly-e-00319