Saving lives, building livelihoods on Mt. Lebanon

As hazards are cleared, and the cloud of fear dissipates, people on Mount Lebanon can start to reclaim idle land for productive use.

Since 2016 DanChurchAid has been clearing land in Lebanon with the support of the US State Department. This has not only removed the immediate threat to people’s lives in the area – it also gives land back to communities and fosters social and economic development.

Learn more about humanitarian mine action
Heading East on Highway 30 from the city of Beirut on the Mediterranean coast the ascend is almost immediate as you to start to climb Mount Lebanon – a mountain range that runs parallel to the ocean and stretches some 170 km from North to South. Almost the entire length of Lebanon.

The highway slithers steeply uphill as you leave the noise, the bustle, and the exhaust fumes of the city. Trucks are spitting black smoke from the effort and cars and motorcycles zip past them – it is the direct route to the Syrian capital of Damascus, and it is busy.

But if you branch off and take one of the smaller mountain roads the congestion eases and the air feels cleaner. As you climb the mountain it gets cooler, and it doesn’t take long before drivers can take in a magnificent view of Beirut and the Mediterranean.

The houses are bigger and more spread out. The biggest among them face the Mediterranean – and it’s not hard to see why this was once the retreat of the wealthier section of Lebanon.

But that changed when civil war broke out in 1975 and Lebanon turned into a battleground between various warring factions – which was further compounded by the Mountain War in the 1980s with particularly intense fighting in the Chouf District on Mount Lebanon. Many people were displaced, some left the country, and several houses up here were left empty in the 15 years the civil war raged on.

Ghosts of past conflict still scare

By 2023 it once again feels like a retreat – but the ghosts of past fighting roam the hills. In Chouf district some houses are still empty – and in some places landmines and unexploded cluster munition and grenades lie just under the topsoil. One wrong step and the consequences could be fatal.

The mountains have huge agricultural potential – starting at the foot of the mountains where tropical crops thrive, on to various altitudes where a range of different crops can grow such as pine nuts, olives, apples, and avocadoes.

And the beautiful nature, the spectacular views, and the cooler climate – less than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean coast – could attract many more local as well as international visitors.

But the threat of explosive remnants of war is not an attractive backdrop to a mountain getaway – and the fear also leaves large tracts of farmland unused.

Maps of explosive ordnance are few and written accounts of the fighting scarce. Nobody knows exactly what lies where – or the shape and size of it. But sometimes people find out in the most gruesome ways.

Tragedy reveals threats

Right in the heart of Remhala town in Chouf District a tragedy happened more than 40 years ago.

The land it happened on is a rocky and uneven patch of land just behind a block of houses by the central roundabout in town.

Deminers from DanChurchAid finished clearance in early 2023 and it was released by the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC) in July the same year.

Even if the site is right in the middle of town, miraculously, no one was harmed for many years.

Battel Area Clearance on Mt Lebanon

But the reason most locals knew to stay away is tragic.

“A child ran behind the building while being chased by the others and stepped on a bomb. They were all standing around when it exploded.”
Suzane Chouman – Remhala resident

In an apartment building right next to the cleared area lives Suzane Chouman and she remembers clearly when they found out that the plot next to the house was contaminated with explosive hazards.

It was in August 1982. I will never forget that day. Four children were playing outside – they were all under 10 years old. All of them from the same family who lived in this building. I think they were playing tag.
One child ran behind the building while being chased by the others and stepped on a bomb – all four children were standing around when it exploded.

The one who stepped on the bomb died instantly and the other three were badly injured. One lost a foot and another a leg from the knee down. Until that happened nobody knew about the bombs. The family moved out shortly after that. It was a horrible day. I still have bad memories,” says Suzane Chouman. 

Swings instead of bombs

A little further up the road lives Akram bou Hassan – he owns an apartment building and runs a very large generator that supplies several houses in Remhala with power. His house is on the other side of the recently cleared land – and for him and his family rule number one has always been to stay on the road and not take any shortcuts. Or chances. They all know the story of the child who stepped on an explosive remnant of war right next door.

In the past everyone was afraid. When my children were small, we were afraid to let them walk down the road alone to go to school.

It is a great relief that the area is now cleared.

We are now talking about constructing a playground for the children in the empty spot,” says Akram optimistically.

The stories that Suzan and Akram tell add important pieces to the puzzle when DanChurchAid conducts surveys to determine where there are explosive hazards in Mount Lebanon.

DanChurchAid clearing land with US support

Since 2006 DanChurchAid has been working to put together bits and pieces of information to identify minefields or former battlegrounds – and to clear them when necessary.

Since 2016 DanChurchAid’s has received funding from the US State Department’s office of Political and Military Affairs and carried out demining and battle area clearance in close collaboration with the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC) – the operational arm of the Lebanese Mine Action Authorities (LMAA).

With US funding DanChurchAid has cleared 1,147,331 sqms and removed 3,900 landmines and unexploded bombs and munition in Lebanon by the end of 2023 – and continues to do so in 2024 and beyond. Gradually more and more land is handed over to the population who can now use it freely and without fear.

The importance of Non-Technical Surveys

Rana Aboud is the team-leader for one of DanChurchAid’s two Non-Technical Survey (NTS) teams in Mount Lebanon. NTS teams are in charge of gathering information used to determine whether unexploded ordnance is present in an area.

Rana says that many clearing tasks start with locals giving information about tragic events in or around their village.
The data we get from old military records or desk studies is often not very accurate – and gathering information from the local communities is vital. That’s what a Non-Technical Survey team does. We normally go through the ‘mukhtar’ – the local chief – in an area who then points us to relevant people to speak to. We speak to victims’ families, neighbours of victims, and we often speak to former combatants who still live in the area. After interviewing everyone we can recommend proceeding with a technical survey or not.

Rana started her career as a deminer with DanChurchAid in 2011 after having heard about accidents and tragedies related to landmines and explosive remnants of war in Lebanon. She wanted to make a difference – she wanted to help make Lebanon safe.

“The first time I found a landmine, I was so happy. I knew that I had just saved someone’s life.”
Rana Aboud – NTS team-leader, DCA Lebanon

As a member of a Non-Technical Survey team Rana no longer finds explosive hazards in the ground – but the feeling of making an impact has not diminished. On the contrary. Without NTS teams gathering intel demining would be an almost futile exercise.

NTS teams track the use of cleared land

The NTS teams also carry out a post-clearance survey 6-8 months after an area has been cleared – and these surveys demonstrate that clearing land not only saves lives it also builds livelihoods.

Rana explains that in many contaminated areas pine, olive, and fruit trees have been left for years without being harvested – so there’s an immediate win from gaining access to them. She also explains that many people make longer term investments in the land they have gotten access to – they build new structures and roads or convert it into new types of farmlands.

In a recent post-clearance survey in Bmuhray village of eight landowners who had gained access to land that had been off-limits because of explosive hazards, all respondents said they were making use of the land. Five of them indicated that they had increased food production, two said that they had increased business, and one had build housing. The respondents also said that they feel safer than before – and everyone were confident that they have sufficient knowledge to identify and report explosive hazards if they were to come across one.

Lifting fear and accessing apples

In another part of Mount Lebanon, in Baabda district, deminers have cleared large areas of fertile farmland in September 2023 – among them is a good portion of an apple orchard where the apples used to rot or be eaten by animals because the farmer was too afraid to harvest them.

The farmer is Yasser Hatoum. He lives with his family in the village of Kfar Selouane – in a mountainous, rural area close to the Beqaa Valley. Yasser explains that the fear of explosives that gripped the village started when a child stepped on an unexploded bomb – in an olive grove not far from Yasser’s land. Then an elderly lady from the village found explosive ordnances in land she was preparing for crops – she carried them home not knowing what they were. Fortunately, none of them exploded – but fear had taken root in the farming community.  

Until now. At the far end of Kfar Selouane a team of DanChurchAid deminers is clearing the last piece of land in the area – Yasser’s land was released weeks ago. He can now access all his land – for the first time since he took ownership of it 24 years ago. His face cracks into a big smile as he says:

It will make a big difference for us. The first harvest of apples could be five times bigger than normal – and there’s a small section of land where I can plant other crops. I am sure that within the next five years, there will be many changes here. I am hoping that the increased income will help me support my children – perhaps with further education or if they need money to get married and move out.

And Yasser points out that it’s not only his family that will benefit. “Everyone benefits! We all live from farming here – those who don’t own land work as farm hands. There will be more work for them too. This year I have already hired more guys than ever before,” he says.

From Hazard to Harvest

DanChurchAid is working with a focus on integrating mine action with livelihood programming under the slogan “From Hazard to Harvest”.

This approach works in three different steps to ensure appropriate assistance to the communities, that live in and around hazardous areas.

  • Educating the population on the risks of moving in hazardous areas
  • Clearing and releasing land back to the communities
  • Providing agricultural input and training to ensure sustainable use of the land in the future

Removing the threat of explosive remnants of war and clearing land in Lebanon is an important step in removing the cloud of fear that hangs over the country. But it also opens an avenue to tackle other challenges that Lebanon is facing – issues related to food security and economic and social development.

With funding from the US State Department and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, DanChurchAid continues to work in the nexus between humanitarian and development needs – to realise all potential benefits of demining for the greater good for all in Lebanon.

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