What 'Safe' Cluster Bombs Do In Lebanon

Tyre, Lebanon - The explosion ripped through the tiny garden in rural south Lebanon, hurling Naemah Ghazi to the ground. The shrapnel from the bomb sliced through her legs, and she rapidly lost consciousness. "There was a lot of blood," her mother Khadija recalls. "All her body was bleeding."

Naemah, 48, lived quietly with her mother in the border town Blida since her father passed away nearly 30 years ago. She was still a teenager when she gave up a future of marriage and kids to take care of her mother full time.

On the morning of Sep. 11, Naemah was out picking vegetables for the evening meal when the bomb -- an Israeli-made M85 cluster munition with a 'self-destruct' mechanism, buried a mere ten metres from her back door -- exploded under her feet.

Naemah was rushed to Sidon's Labib Medical Centre two hours drive away. The doctors amputated her right leg just below the knee, but saved the other within a construct of metal rods.

A month later, Naemah is still in hospital; small and frail on her white metal bed. She is on painkillers and antibiotics, and has become depressed, says hospital supervisor, Shadi Hanouni. The wounds on her left leg are infected, and nurses change her dressings every five hours.

Blida is a small and poor town. Most residents rely on tobacco and olive harvests, and money sent by relatives abroad to keep financially afloat. Occupied until 2000 by Israel and its local proxy army, the SLA, it was one of the first targets for cluster munition strikes last summer.

Cluster bombs in Blida have injured town leader Suleiman Majdi, and Naemah's six-year-old nephew Abbas Yousef Abbas, along with three other children he was playing with. All have survived, but barely -- Majdi and Abbas bear deep scars across their stomachs and limbs.

Lebanon has a devastating cluster bomb problem. Hit hard during the final days of last summer's conflict with Israel, hundreds of thousands of unexploded munitions are strewn throughout the south's rural towns and fertile fields and valleys. Although there have been 255 civilian and de-mining casualties to date, official requests for Israel's cluster bomb strike data have gone unanswered.

"The reality of the situation is we simply don't know how many there are, and we will never know until the Israelis tell us how many they fired," says Chris Clark, the United Nations programme manager for the Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC), the official body tasked with coordinating munitions clearance with the Lebanese Army in the south.

So far the clearance teams working under the MACC have destroyed over 131,000 cluster bombs. While U.S. munitions manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s are the majority found and destroyed, Israeli M85 cluster munition strikes have been discovered mostly in fields and towns like Blida along the Blue Line, the UN demarcated border between Israel and Lebanon.

Stockpiled by the U.S., Britain and Germany among others, the M85 cluster bomb is shaped like a miniature tin can with a white ribbon on top that spins to load the bomb once it's airborne. While older versions have a single fuse, the current model is equipped with a second; a 'safety' fuse that detonates automatically if the initial one fails.

"For some years there has been a humanitarian concern about the post-conflict problems caused by the use of cluster bombs -- it goes back to Kosovo and the use of them there," says Clark. "In an attempt to mitigate that, the Israelis took the basic nucleus of the (U.S.-made) M77 and M42 design, smartened it up a bit and added a self-destruct mechanism."

Its manufacturers cite the contemporary M85's failure rate at less than one percent -- results that countries like Britain hold up for justifying their continued use. However, independent studies since conducted in 'real' -- as opposed to laboratory -- conditions have determined the figure to be more like 5 to 10 percent.

Clark seconds this finding. "What we have established here (in Lebanon) is that the average failure rate is at least 6 percent. So for the users of this system to continue to use them on a basis that they have a negligible failure rate is clearly foolish."

The push to ban cluster munitions worldwide by 2008 was kicked off in Oslo earlier this year. Spearheaded by the Britain-based Cluster Munition Coalition representing hundreds of civil society groups, the conferences have successfully recruited 80 countries -- including producers, users and stockpilers -- to sign on so far.

But top weapons manufacturers and exporters -- the U.S., China and Russia -- are staying away, and Britain, although a participant, is fighting hard for the exclusion of the M85 from the ban. "They've been arguing this for several months now," says Thomas Nash, coordinator for the CMC. "Although it is proven they do not work, and are a huge danger to the civilian population."

With the next meeting due this December in Vienna, tobacco and olive harvesters in Blida, and throughout the south of Lebanon, continue to harvest their crops in fear. "Blida was the place where the first civilians were injured," says Nash when told about Naemah. "The symmetry post-conflict is just tragic."

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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