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The Inverness Courier (Scotland)

Painful Aftermath of War Never Ends With a Ceasefire

Billy Briggs

When two of his staff were killed in an explosion Andy Gleeson was left deeply shocked.

"It was something that affected every one of us, but because of the nature of our work these accidents remain a constant threat," says the 45-year-old from Inverness.

Mr Gleeson is standing outside the headquarters of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) on the outskirts of the town of Nabatieh in southern Lebanon. He is talking about the deaths of Abbas Jabber (29) and Ali Bittar (23) two MAG colleagues who died last August.

Jabber and Bittar, the former a father of two young children, were killed when a bomb exploded.

Mr Gleeson, a father of two himself, points to the rusting remains of defused shells lying in the shade a few yards away.

"There's been so many conflicts in Lebanon these types of munitions are everywhere," he says.

As technical operations manager for MAG - a Manchester-based organisation that clears the debris of war - his remit is to cleanse Lebanon of thousands of unexploded bombs delivered by Israel during the recent war with Hezbollah.

The 2006 Lebanon War was a 34-day battle between, primarily, Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli Defence Force. The brief conflict killed more than a thousand people, most were Lebanese civilians.

Although the fighting ceased after just over one month, the war continues to cast a dark shadow over the lives of people in Lebanon.

During the last 48-hours of the conflict around one million cluster bombs are estimated to have been dropped into southern Lebanon.

Mr Gleeson says the consequences for the population have been nothing less than catastrophic. In the first four months following the ceasefire there were 209 casualties from unexploded munitions and since hundreds more have been either killed or maimed for life.

A former bomb disposal expert with 23 years service in the Royal Logistics Corps, Gleeson is not interested in politics.

"Our job is to make the land safe and hopefully to prevent more innocent people being hurt," he says.

Waideh Turkieh holds up a white ribbon to her chest as if it were a medal.

"This is what killed my son," the Lebanese woman says. Waideh, a thin 50-year-old, is dressed in black to mourn the death of her eldest boy, Ali. On 15th August, 2006, he was killed by a cluster bomb.

The macabre memento she holds is from the explosive device which blew up in his face. "I call this the medal of death," Waideh says dryly.

She offers me the ribbon to hold then says she intends to wear black for the rest of her life. Ali was only 20-years-old when he died.

When I ask what her son looked like Waideh fetches a framed photograph from another room. In the picture Ali has cropped, dark hair and mischievous teenage eyes. He strongly resembles his father, Khaleel, who sits next to me drawing heavily on a cigarette.

Waideh, Khaleel and Ali's younger sister, Hiba are trying to come to terms with the loss of a beloved son and brother and the recent war that decimated their lives.

The family live in the village of Zowtar West in the rugged hills of southern Lebanon, not far from the border with Israel.

"Our village was targeted and badly hit during the fighting and eight homes over there were completely destroyed."

Waideh says the Turkieh's home was hit by shells and its concrete roof is full of gaping holes from missiles and flying shrapnel.

She takes back the white ribbon from the M42 cluster bomb that killed her son. "When we returned to our village after the ceasefire the men went out checking for cluster bombs on our land. It was the first day after the ceasefire. Ali survived the war but was killed on the first day of peace. How could that be?" she asks.

MAG is currently working to clear Zowtar West and the Turkieh family hope to be able to access their land again shortly.

They are generous with their praise for the group as the villagers have received little help from the government or elsewhere. MAG began working in Lebanon at the end of the First Lebanon War in 2000, so it was already operational in the country when the latest conflict erupted and has been to trouble-spots all over the globe.

There are more than 400 staff working, Mr Gleeson explains, clearing between 300,000 and 500,000 square metres of contaminated land each month.

Mr Gleeson, whose wife Fiona lives in Westhill with his daughters five-year-old Christina and four-year-old Bethany, has spent much of his life working in hotspots around the world.

During his army career he worked in Northern Ireland and with MAG he has cleared mines in Iraq. When the fighting in Lebanon began in 2006 his wife and children were on a visit to Nabatieh and the Gleeson family were among thousands of British ex-pats evacuated from Beirut.

Stressing MAG is an NGO and apolitical, he says its effectiveness would increase if Israel would provide information on drop locations and the number of cluster bombs used during the war.

The use of cluster bombs is highly controversial. Israel, among others, has declined to participate in the Oslo Process to endorse an international treaty banning the devices.

However, the Israeli Embassy in London says cluster bombs were used during the war but solely on military targets in Lebanon and it has passed information to the UN with regards to cluster bombs and provided operational maps. "We have not identified exact locations, however, as this would expose our intelligence," it says.

Mr Gleeson invites us to watch a clearance team working at the village of Yohmor, near the border with Israel.

Following the cessation of violence, MAG went into Yohmor and produced a report called "Yohmor village - Imprisoned by bombs". Of the village's 600 homes, 260 were badly damaged, including 40 houses razed to the ground.

MAG - whose work here and in Zowtar West is funded by the European Commission's humanitarian aid department - has focused on making land safe for residents to farm as villagers have been left penniless because they cannot work.

In an olive grove we watch a row of eight men on their knees, bent over, their plastic face guards nearly touching the ground as they carefully inch forward, checking for cluster bombs. Medics nearby smoke cigarettes and watch closely.

The legacy of war, as Gleeson will attest to, certainly smacks you hard in the face.

On our penultimate day we visit a primary school in the village of Siddiquin hosting an event to mark International Day for Cluster bomb Victims.

A couple of hundred excited schoolchildren are gathered in the main hall to watch a magician. The walls of the school are covered in balloons and posters produced by UNICEF to educate children on what cluster bombs look like.

For some, the advice is too late, including eight-year-old Mahmoud Balmas who lost his right eye after kicking a cluster bomb outside his home and Raasha Zayoun (17), who lost her left leg below the knee when a bomb exploded in her living room. At the end of the show some of the children start to burst balloons. "BANG! BANG! BANG!" The noise echoes loudly round the hall. Raasha's face turns white with shock.

The pain of war doesn't end with a ceasefire.

-- Billy Briggs

copyright 2008 Scottish Provincial Press Ltd.

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