WORLD

Small, deadly, and everywhere

In south Lebanon, NGOs are cleaning up a million unexploded bomblets

MARTIN PATRIQUIN October 30 2006
WORLD

Small, deadly, and everywhere

In south Lebanon, NGOs are cleaning up a million unexploded bomblets

MARTIN PATRIQUIN October 30 2006

Small, deadly, and everywhere

In south Lebanon, NGOs are cleaning up a million unexploded bomblets

MARTIN PATRIQUIN

In a dense lemon grove in al-Hosh, a suburb of Tyre, eight flak-jacketed men walk in slow lockstep, their eyes combing the ground. Trees, their branches low-hanging and bulging with fruit, are a constant obstacle: the men must get on their hands and knees and crawl underneath, their eyes fixated on the thick layer of leaves, grass and sticks beneath them. They are looking for what are referred to as “items,” roughly the size of a salt shaker and affixed with a loop of white cloth.

If they happen to touch one the wrong way, they and those around them will suffer horrible injury or death.

The men are calm as can be. Every hour, they break for prayer.

This meticulous search is a common sight throughout south Lebanon these days. During the recent war, particularly in its final days, the Israel Defense Fbrces dropped an untold number of “bomblets” over much of the south. Packed into rockets or artillery shells, or dropped from planes in canisters, the bomblets are intended to spread like buckshot and blow up upon impact. In each is 40 g of RDX, a high explosive that can penetrate up to four centimetres of steel, or cut through three humans lined up in a row. They land wherever the elements take them—and some do not explode. “They look small, funny and innocent, but they’re not,” says Magnus Rundström, a hulking Swede who figures he’s disarmed about 1,000 of the things during his 16-year career. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to survive, because the arms will be gone, and the face will be damaged.”

Rundström is a technical field manager with the Mine Action Group, one of six NGOs contracted by the UN to help remove the bomblets—as well as any other unexploded ordnance they happen to find. Assuming all goes well, the process will take 15 months. It is unknown exactly how many people were killed or maimed by bomblets when they were first dropped. But their failure rate usu-

ally ranges from 10 to 40 percent, and officials with the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Centre estimate there are some one million littering south Lebanon—or roughly 1.5 for each person living in the region. Often, the bomblets get caught in trees, and in al-Hosh— where rows of Lebanon’s majestic cedars serve as crop dividers for these four hectares of farmland being searched—Rundström evacuates his team every time there is a stiff wind.

The Israeli government, which says its use of bomblets complies with international law, stated that the vast majority of the submunitions were dropped in the last three

days of the war in an attempt to eke out a tougher UN resolution against Hezbollah. Though Israel provided maps of potentially affected areas, these are impossibly vague. When asked political questions, Rundström dismisses them with a wave of his thick fingers. “The bomblets are here now, so we deal with it,” he says, standing beside one he’d disarmed that morning.

Ultimately, he would like to destroy bomblets by detonating them on the spot. This is not always possible—sometimes they land near houses, schools, or on roads. The day before, Rundström encountered a group of children playing a game of catch with one. He got out of his car, shooed away the kids, and disarmed the bomblet himself: gently hooking the ribbon, pulling away the firing pin, pushing in a metal sleeve and then wrapping the whole thing with tape.

It’s a process that takes all of 20 seconds. Once disarmed, bomblets are moved to a detonation zone nearby. The 37-year-old doesn’t really know why he does what he does. “I was a car mechanic once upon a time, but that was boring,” Rundström shrugs, sweat gleaming on his scalp. M