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Lebanon: the war is over but cluster bombs keep maiming

31-01-2007 Feature

At least one million 'bomblets' litter the fields and orchards of tiny southern Lebanon, killing and maiming people like twenty-two-year-old Muhammad, who reached up into a vine for what he thought was a piece of plastic, while picking grapes behind his home.



  What are cluster munitions?
  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.

Muhammad Hassan now sits, hunched up, on a plastic chair in front of his house, his crutches next to him, with a withdrawn look on his thin face. The explosion severely maimed his left leg. He barely answers questions, letting his family explain to a visitor, over tangerines and coffee, what plagues Resheknaneih village, beautifully nestled in the mountains of southern Lebanon, amid olive groves and tobacco fields.  

 Omnipresent menace  

“We stayed in the village for nearly the whole war this summer,” recalls Fadel Hassan, Muhammad’s father. “After the cease-fire, the military came to remove many bombs, but obviously far from all of them. That’s when Muhammad had his accident. There are still plenty of them, everywhere. "

  Mohammad's father points out one of the many trees in which 'bomblets' can still be found.    
    The 34-day conflict in Lebanon resulted in the contamination by cluster bombs of vast tracts of the southern part of the country. A cluster bomb bursts into bomblets – up to 644 of them – which spread out near the ground. Depending on the type of ammunition used, between 15 and 40 per cent fail to explode. Many hang in trees by their yellow ribbon, hidden amongst grapes, olives and oranges.  

 Unprecedented contamination  

" This density of cluster submunition contamination may be unprecedented, " declares Philip Spoerri, ICRC's director for international law. Spoerri further emphasizes that this weapon, which has been used for nearly 40 years, “has had a severe and disproportionate impact on civilian populations”.

In Lebanon, this deadly legacy has already killed at least 18 civilians since the cessation of hostilities on 14 August 2006, and injured a further 136. In November 2006, the ICRC called on States to end the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and to prohibit their use in populated areas. The organization is leading an initiative to clearly regulate the use of cluster munitions under international humanitarian law.

In southern Lebanon, due to the sheer scale of the problem – more than 800 contaminated sites have been identified – the de-miners’ priority has been schools, homes and streets, leaving agricultural areas for a second round. As a result, farmers are left without an income.

  Countryside behind the Hassan home, still strewn with some of the 15 to 40 per cent of cluster bombs which fail to explode.    

“I cannot harvest whatever crops were not burned during the war, " says Muhammad’s father. " The little money I have left pays for Muhammad’s treatment: we have to rent a car to take him to his daily physiotherapy, and I don’t know how I will be able to pay for his second operation.” In 18 months, the doctors plan to remove the iron rods that hold the young man’s leg together, and only then will he know whether he will be able to walk, and work, again.

The visitor asks for permission to take a picture. “Of course!” the family responds in unison. But for the first time, Muhammad straightens up, face set, and resolutely shakes his head. He does not want the whole world gaping at his shattered dreams.