Lebanon Deminers Hang Up Their Detectors as Funds Dry Up
TYRE, Lebanon - Mohamed Balhas was on his tractor clearing a patch of land near his home in southern Lebanon last week when a cluster bomb exploded, shooting shrapnel into his chest and left leg.
"I didn't know what hit me. Suddenly blood was pouring from my chest," said the 36-year-old Balhas.
With funds drying up for the massive demining operations under way in southern Lebanon since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the UN fears that such incidents, already all-too-frequent, will increase.
The demining teams have been working all-out to clear the more than one million cluster bombs Israel dropped throughout south Lebanon during the last days of its devastating 34-day war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.
However, many of the 44 teams doing the work will have to lay down their metal detectors at the end of August due to lack of funds, according to Dalya Farran, spokeswoman for the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC).
"Our productivity in clearing contaminated areas will be cut by 50 percent at the end of the month when the teams stop their work," Farran said, adding that the 2008 budget was short 4.7 million dollars.
"And 2009 is a whole other story. Without funding, we will have to stop all the teams," she said.
The teams working alongside the Lebanese army and UN forces comprise around 1,000 people, most of them Lebanese.
The work is dangerous -- in the two years since the war's end, 27 civilians and 13 deminers have been killed and 234 civilians and 39 deminers wounded as a result of cluster bombs and unexploded ordnance, according to MACC.
Farran said 1,058 sites contaminated by cluster bombs and unexploded ordnance from the 2006 war had been identified. The combined area of the sites totals around 41 square kilometres (16 square miles).
Clearance teams, dressed in protective clothing and headgear, pass their metal detectors over every centimetre (inch) of the contaminated sites and mark the area where there is a metallic presence.
Other experts then come to dig up any bombs and transport them to another site where they are exploded.
As Mohamed Balhas recovers at his home from the two operations he has endured to remove the shrapnel from his chest, he contemplates going back to work. But the thought is daunting.
"Of course we are afraid to work and do our jobs, but we have to. We have to put food on the table," he said.
As the demining teams cease their operations, "the potential for accidents will definitely increase" according to Farran who said that 2005 saw a "dramatic increase" in the casualty rate when a previous demining operation was stopped.
According to Farran, "43 percent of the areas affected by the cluster bombs dropped during the July 2006 war have been cleared and the direct threat has been eliminated from 49 percent of the contaminated areas -- which means the surface bombs have been removed."
"Eight percent still needs to be worked on."
But it's not only the lethal bomblets that are causing sleepless nights for residents of southern Lebanon.
"Aside from the cluster bombs, we still have 300,000 landmines along the Blue Line (the frontier with Israel)," said Tyre mayor Abdel Hosn al-Husseini, referring to mines laid by Israel before its withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
"Maybe Georgia is distracting donors' attention," he added.
Husseini said that 45,000 cluster bombs were cleared from one village alone.
"Many of the bombs were dropped on agricultural lands, which means farmers are staying away from their land," he said.
He estimated that 80 percent of the people in southern Lebanon worked in the agricultural sector, particularly tobacco, olives and bananas.
When an area is cleared, the surface bombs are removed as well as those detected below the surface. But there is always risk that some go undetected.
"We will continue to feel the effects of cluster bombs for another 100 or 200 years," said Yehya Balhas, a 43-year-old farmer.
"This area was supposed to be clean, but our neighbour was hurt just the other day when one blew up. There are some areas where you can't even work the land," he added.
His four-year-old niece Mariam recognises cluster bombs from television ads.
"I saw one with a white string on it in the field and ran away. I also saw one on the road when we first came back," she said referring to her family's return after fleeing the bombardment during the war.
While the funding issue presents a major hindrance to the bomb-clearing effort, Farran maintains that the main impediment is the fact that Israel has not revealed any information on the cluster bombs that its air forces dropped.
"The United Nations has repeatedly requested cluster bomb data from Israel (including maps and the type of ordnance dropped), but in two years plus, we still haven't received the requested data," Farran said.
"This remains the main obstacle to the cluster bomb clearing effort."
News of the scaling back of the demining effort has not been reassuring for locals.
Tohmeh Tohmeh, 50, a well-wisher visiting Mohamed Balhas after his accident, himself was a casualty of a land mine blast in 1996.
"I was hurt from head to toe. My stomach was literally blown open and I lost sight in my right eye," he says.
"Now they are stopping the demining, but we are still dying," he added.