DCA EU funded teams clearing contaminated land in Lebanon

REMHALLA, Lebanon: “Come on! We’ve been waiting for you all morning!” a man said in a stern voice, rustling his handlebar moustache and slight goatee that blended with days old stubble covering the rest of his chin. “We can’t have coffee before you’re here,” he added before rupturing into laughter.

The man’s name is Captain Robert Haj Moussa and he is a Community Liaison Officer at the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC) accompanying a field trip to the Mount Lebanon village of Remhalla.

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Here, directed by the NGO DanChurchAid, the Multi Task Team 2’s Mine Action Team had set up a control point in an abandoned farm, which overlooks a field with fig trees.

“Come back from there!” the captain said, as I went to the edge of the farm’s balcony to film the deminers working in the field, “there’s a safe distance.”

Several meters away, perhaps a hundred, and raised above the slanted hillside was still not safe. The metal railing encasing the balcony, probably to make sure nobody would fall down and break a leg, was chipped.

“From a [controlled mine] explosion,” Moussa said as he pointed to the field where a deminer was walking around clad in bright red protective body armor. We went back to the table where a safety briefing was about to start.

The little village of Remhalla has more than 12,000 square meters of former farmland contaminated with mines and cluster munitions from Israeli bombs dropped around 1982. The area is a little bigger than one and a half football pitch, not much, but being right next to the village kids would go and play there.

“We used to see cluster bombs and mines [lying around], we didn’t know they were dangerous so we used to collect them,” Faysal Farouk Khaddaje recalled from behind the counter of his little shop.

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“One day, we stepped on a mine. I lost consciousness and can’t remember what happened,” he said.

His 12-13 year old self, he can’t remember exactly how old he was, spent two to three months in a coma after that, and when he woke up he couldn’t walk or use his hands. He was the luckiest he said.

“My brother was worse, everything was outside,” he said and pointed with his unopened hand to his stomach, “they put stitches,” he said tracing his hand from his collarbone down to his hip.

“They thought he was dead [when he arrived at the hospital], so first he was put in the [morgue], but hamdillah they put him in intensive care and he woke up,” he said.

The two even aged cousins, whom the Khaddaje brothers were playing with that day, died on that farmland 35 years ago.

In 2016 there were seven injured by mines according to the Mine Victim Assistance organization, none of them lethal. As an indication on the progress of the mine clearing work, that number was twice as high in 2015.

And results like that is what drives some of the people working in a line of work which holds some danger.

“I’m happy [in my job], especially if I find something,” Ali Zeineldin said. He’s one of the eight deminers on the EU funded DCA Multi Task Team 2.

“Lebanon is my country and we have mines and cluster bombs. It’s a job for every Lebanese to clear the country of dangerous items,” he said.

 A large part of Lebanon is contaminated with either landmines or cluster bomb munitions. The Lebanese Army has a special division for clearing mines, the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC), which organizes the demining efforts and gathers data for annual reports.

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South Lebanon is the most affected part of the country, in LMAC’s latest report South Lebanon and Nabatieh have 48 percent of the total area contaminated by cluster bombs and landmines. The explosives originate from the 70’s, 80’s and most recently 2006.

In August 2017,52,600,000 square meters of land remanied contaminated with unexploded bombs or mines in Lebanon. The clearing progress is slow, but that number is down from more than 161,500,000 square meters - 1.5 percent of Lebanon’s total landmass.

When an area has been cleared from mines, it’s given back to the   owner. In most of the cases, it’s reused as farmland, which it once was, just like in Remhalla.

Walking through the former farmland felt like a maze, there were paths where the minesweepers had cut down all plant life and traced their metal detectors back and forth with care and removed any possible explosives or dangerous items..

But outside the path, marked by some red-and-white tape, the dangerous area was located. Here the wilderness has grown unmanaged for several years and the grass was meters high and the trees almost covered by it.

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Even though it has not been taken care of for many years, the fig trees still yielded fruits, as one of the deminers took advantage of and picked some to go snack on in one of their 15 minutes break they get every 45 minutes.

Lunchtime was nearing, as could be heard by the family up on the hill began chatting loudly. And the team trotted back to the abandoned farmhouse for lunch.

The deminers took off the protective red vest, and big sweat marks were visible on their grey clothes.

“[The work’s] not easy. It’s difficult due to the type of land and the weather here,” Zeineldin said.

But it’s important that someone does it, he believes. And he is far from alone. Faysal Farouk Khaddaje had to borrow money from friends and banks, which he’s still indebted to, to start his little shop, he’s being weighed down by expensive medicine he has to take.

But none of that is his biggest concern.

“I fear for my son. My biggest fear is if he [would have] an accident!” he said with wide open eyes.

So he’s very grateful for the work that’s being done by the organizations clearing the minefield in the outskirts of the village.

“[It’s] very good, it’s a great job and I wish [they] continue,” he said.

Fact box

DCA Multi task team 1 started working on this task on May 29, 2017. The team has cleared so far until end of October 14,068 m2 with 13 cluster bombs and 6 UXOs found. The area cleared is considered as agricultural land where olive and fig trees can be planted. The task is expected to be finished within two weeks.

According to pre impact assessment, the number of direct beneficiaries is amounting to 33 persons with 2,000 persons as indirect beneficiaries.

Written by: Morten Larsen, Denmark
Photos taken by: Morten Larsen