Cluster bombs: the menace in a Lebanese garden
Since mid-2006, wide areas of southern Lebanon remain infested with unexploded ordnance, mainly from cluster munitions. They pose a continued threat to civilians – people like Hussein, who was maimed when a cluster submunition ('bomblet') fell from a tree and exploded against his head.
A cluster munition consists of a canister, containing up to hundreds of smaller submunitions (or "bomblets"), that can be dropped from the air or launched in an artillery shell. These are designed to explode on impact or after a timed delay.
In reality, however, many cluster munitions fail to explode as intended and remain a lethal threat until disturbed. The risk for civilians is further increased because of the wide area (known as a “footprint”) covered by bomblets from a single munition.
Cluster munitions, in one form or another, have been used in various conflicts across the world, starting in the Second World War. Areas that have suffered major cluster bomb contamination are parts of Laos and Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.
Cluster munitions and the ICRC
The ICRC has voiced its concern about cluster munitions for several years. In November 2006, at the 3rd Review Conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the ICRC said the specific threats posed by these weapons required urgent action by governments, namely:
- the immediate end to the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions;
- a ban on targeting cluster munitions against any military objective located in a populated area;
- the elimination of stocks of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and, pending their destruction, not to transfer such weapons to other countries.
The ICRC also offered to host an international expert meeting early in 2007, to discuss the development of new rules of international humanitarian law to specifically regulate these weapons.
Read statement in full and interview of the head of the ICRC's Mines-Arms Unit
E-Mine Electronic Mine Information Network - Lebanon update
As Hussein (70) touched the tree a cluster bomblet fell out of it onto his head: the blast damaged his skull and blew him across the garden. Miraculously, he survived but the left side of his body is paralysed and he is unable to speak.
" He was a strong man and his spirit was like that of a man in his prime. He was so active and full of energy… actually it has been his strength that saved his life, " says Souad, one of Hussein’s four daughters.
During the war, Hussein and his wife, Mothmina, fled to Qa'ata, in the mountains. It was a wise decision because during the bombing their house caught fire and their small garden was showered with some 200 cluster submunitions that failed to explode. When the hostilities stopped, Hussein and Mothmina returned home to assess the damage and rebuild their house – and their lives.
The couple started work on the house after de-miners had been in to clear out any unexploded munitions in the ruins of the building and in the garden. The house was already taking shape, but there were busy days ahead, before the winter forced them to stay indoors.
Bomblet in the tree
Early on the morning of 9 September, Hussein and his wife were having coffee in front of the house. He stood up and said to Mothmina that the lemon tree needed pruning.
" He approached the tree and held the branches that he wanted to prune when the bomblet fell on his head. The blast sent him flying towards my mother. For many days we thought he would not make it, " says Souad.
This is a common story in southern Lebanon – or not quite: Hussein and Mothmina are getting on in years, their daughters and three sons are grown up, almost all of them are married and have children. Unlike other victims, Hussein no longer has to worry about feeding his children and his 18 grandchildren; he does not have t o work in fields infested with unexploded ordnance just so his family can eat.
Despite the ongoing de-mining efforts, large areas of southern Lebanon are still cluttered with deadly cluster submunitions. Farmers cannot get to their olive trees and cattle cannot be taken to any pasturage that the de-miners have not yet visited.
Three months after the incident, Mothmina is absorbed in looking after her mutilated husband. Her face and her gaze are soft, but she doesn’t utter a word. Daughter Souad takes care of them both now.
“My mother is no longer the same since she witnessed the explosion,” says Souad. " She is traumatized; she seems lost and constantly forgets things. "
The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC) has estimated that up to one million unexploded cluster submunitions remain on the ground in southern Lebanon. According to the UN, nearly 79,000 cluster bomblets had been cleared by December 2006 – but at least a year would be needed to complete the job.