‘I feel like I’ve saved a life’: the women clearing Lebanon of cluster bombs
An all-female team is doing the hazardous and painstaking work of removing unexploded Israeli ordnance from the 2006 war
Only up close does it become clear that some of the bulky figures in armoured vests scouring the fields of southern Lebanon for unexploded cluster bombs are wearing hijabs under their protective helmets.
Once local teachers, nurses and housewives, this group of women are now fully trained to search for mines and make up the only all-female clearance team in Lebanon, combing the undergrowth inch by inch for the remnants of one of the most indiscriminate weapons of modern warfare.
Leading the women in the field is Lamis Zein, a 33-year-old divorced mother of two and the team’s supervisor. She was one of the first recruits for the team, which was set up by the de-mining NGO Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA).
“When I heard they were recruiting I applied straight away,” said Zein. “At the beginning men were surprised to see us in the field, wearing the same protective equipment as men, doing demolitions of bombs like men. But we work together well as a team of women. We share things that we wouldn’t with male colleagues. We are good at what we do and we are showing that women can do any kind of job.”
Their painstaking task became necessary five years ago this week, after Israel rained cluster munitions on southern Lebanon to a degree the UN condemned as a “flagrant violation of international law“.
Fighting had begun in July 2006 when Hezbollah, the armed Islamic group that had been terrorising Israel with rocket attacks, went one step further and ambushed an Israeli patrol, killing two soldiers and kidnapping two more. By mid-August ceasefire talks were on the cards. But Israel’s final assault in the last 72 hours before peace on 14 August was to fire as many as 4m cluster bomblets into southern Lebanon.
Cluster bombs burst open in mid-air and release bomblets that are supposed to detonate on impact, but many of the ones fired on Lebanon did not explode, lying on the ground instead like landmines with the potential to blow up at any time. The women’s team works in tandem with other teams of searchers, all co-ordinated by the Lebanese army, to clear up the unexploded ordnance that still litters the countryside.
“Women are more patient than men,” said Zein. “That is why we are good at this job. We work more slowly – and maybe we are a little more afraid than men.”
Whatever the sex of those searching the undergrowth, the risks are still the same – one careless move and they could lose a leg. The previous day a searcher in another de-mining team was injured, reminding everyone of the dangers of the job. Everyone has their blood type embroidered on their vests for good reason.
“My kids always worry about me, especially yesterday when they heard about the accident,” says Abeer Asaad, team member and mother to five daughters. “They asked me to quit my job yesterday, they were so scared.”
“I was unemployed when I heard that NPA was recruiting women for a de-mining team and I applied without telling anyone, not even my husband. When he found out he didn’t want me to do it. I was scared too. Just hearing the word ‘bomb’ would make you scared. But when I began to work it was different, especially when you are careful all the time and follow the rules. You need to be alert and focused when you are in the field, and you must check the ground slowly.”
Zein too says her family have come to accept her job after four years in the field. “I was an English teacher for eight years. I wanted a change, and this could not be more different than teaching.
“Of course, my family was worried but now they ask me every day how many clusters I found, how many I destroyed.”
She is the only woman in the country to be trained in explosives demolition and at the end of the day detonates the bomblets they find. “I am so happy when we find them and I can carry out what I have been trained for.”
They have found 38 bomblets in the field they have been working in since May, and two on the road up to the site which vehicles use every day. Others who have come so close to bomblets have not been so lucky. There have been nearly 400 casualties, including more than 50 deaths, since 2006.
It was a year after the war that Rasha Zayyoun joined the list of casualties. Life had been returning to normal for the then 17-year-old and her family after the devastation of the previous summer. Her father brought home a bushel of thyme he had harvested for Rasha to clean, but neither of them noticed a bomblet hidden among the leaves. As she began work her finger got caught on the device and thinking it was a piece of rubbish, she threw it aside. As it hit the ground it exploded. Rasha lost her left leg below the knee.
“It was so painful. It was like torture,” she said at her family home in the village of Maarakeh where she is trying to build a life for herself as a dressmaker. “I have a prosthetic leg now but I can only walk for a few minutes on it.”
Stories like Rasha’s are what make Asaad sing and dance when she finds a bomblet. “I feel like I have saved a life,” she beams. “If I find a cluster and take it out, then there will be no victim from it. The feeling is beyond description.”
“We feel like we are doing something for Lebanon,” says Zein. “We are making it safe for children to play in the fields and we are letting farmers go back into their fields to earn money for their families.”
Lebanon is spearheading efforts to convince more countries to sign an international treaty banning cluster bombs and next month it is hosting an international convention to promote the cause.
But while the debate on the use of cluster bombs continues, for the women of NPA’s Team 4 another working day is over. By 3pm, with the temperature higher than 40C, the women pack up their kit, pile in to a minivan and head back to their families.
Zein tallies up their achievements for the day: 330 sq metres cleared, one cluster bomblet found and destroyed, all the team home safe.
It has been a good day, But with 18m sq metres of land still to clear, there are many more to find before their job is done.