Inter Press Service
SRIFA, Southern Lebanon — Close to a million unexploded bombs are estimated to litter southern Lebanon, according to UN forces engaged in the hazardous task of removing them.
The United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created by the Security Council in 1978 to confirm an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and restore international peace and security. After the war last year it has a new job on its hands.
Following the July-August war between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, UNIFIL enhanced its force and took on new tasks such as monitoring the cessation of hostilities and removing untold numbers of unexploded missiles, mines and cluster bombs.
Most of these lie in southern Lebanon, which took the brunt of bombings from Israeli warplanes.
Lebanon has a population of four million, close to half of it in capital Beirut. Given the population distribution, there could be almost as many unexploded bombs as there are people in southern Lebanon.
“Between 10-40 percent of the cluster bombs do not explode on impact,” a lieutenant who gave his name as Verbeke, with the Belgian contingent of UNIFIL, told IPS at the site of a 500kg unexploded bomb in Srifa, a little town near the border. “Sometimes they get stuck in trees or bushes, and there are Lebanese people being injured or killed by them nearly every single day.”
Israeli warplanes roared overhead as he spoke, in clear violation of the ceasefire agreement brokered between Lebanon and Israel.
Verbeke pointed to one of his Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams in action. The fuse of the 500kg bomb was removed and detonated, leaving the weapon harmless. It was then loaded onto a UN truck, and carried to a detonation site, to be exploded there out of harm’s way.
Lebanese living nearby are grateful for such efforts.
“The UN is doing great work here,” Wissam Mousawi, a construction worker who lives near the site of this unexploded bomb told IPS. “They are really fantastic.”
But this was just one small success. According to the Belgians as many as 800,000 unexploded ordnance (UXO), and possibly more, still remain. Meanwhile, scores of Lebanese civilians have died from contacting cluster bombs. More than 200 have been wounded, most of them severely.
“We are clearing approximately 50 square metres of land per day,” the chief of the Beligian engineers detachment who gave his name as Lt. Col. Watteeuw told IPS back at their base. “The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre manages 60 de-mining teams working throughout the south. Many are UNIFIL teams, but most are private contracting companies.”
When asked if they had received any information to assist in locating the munitions from Israel, Watteeuw said, “That’s a good question, but you would have to go 20km south of here (into Israel) to obtain that information.”
He estimates it would take “probably more than three to five years” to clear southern Lebanon of what he estimates to be 900 air and artillery strike areas. But that would still only be the flat areas, and not include hills and other areas where munitions have yet to be found.
Watteeuw said his teams are finding hundreds of thousands of unexploded cluster bombs, along with smaller numbers of grenades, artillery rounds, anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines and bombs of all varieties.
Thus far, civilian contractor teams have cleared approximately 110,000 UXO, and UNIFIL teams like the Belgian teams the colonel oversees, approximately 25,000.
“In Belgium we’ve cleared 100 tonnes of UXO on average every year since World War I,” he added. “So this could take a long time.”
Teams from China, France, Italy, Finland, Ireland, Turkey and Spain are also engaged in clearing unexploded bombs.
Much of the population in the south relies on tobacco, vegetable and fruit farms to make their living. With UXO littering countless fields, many are unable to work.
Local people in affected areas continue to be anxious about further Israeli aggression against them, even as they re thankful to the UN.
“I think it’s a good thing for UNIFIL to help us get our land back,” Mohammed Kundoulay, a 17-year-old secondary school student in the area told IPS. “We need this help now after the Israelis conducted terrorism against us.”
Kundoulay hid with his family in their home during the first 10 days of the war before fleeing to Beirut.
Anther student, Jaffar Assaf, told IPS that the UN de-mining teams were doing a great job, but was angry at what he called double standards.
“We hope the UN maintain their criteria in helping us now and help to defend us from Israel,” he said. “In reality, the UN should be in Israel to defend us from them, since they were the ones who invaded Lebanon, not vice versa.”
UNIFIL maintains a presence in southern Lebanon, and not in Israel, although the forces carry out helicopter patrols over the tense border area.