Foreign Reportage

REPORTAGE

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Lebanon

SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY’S SPECTRUM MAGAZINE - Sunday, January 20th, 2008.

The legacy of war in Lebanon

WHEN war erupted in the summer of 2006, Billy McCulloch and his family fled their home in southern Lebanon. As the Israelis bombed Hezbollah paramilitary forces and invaded the nation in response to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers, nearly a million Lebanese left their homes in the south of the
country – an exodus witnessed by a world holding its breath. It was an experience McCulloch would not wish to endure again. "We went to Beirut," he says. "We could hear the bombs being dropped on the city from Israeli planes. They would come in waves at 20-minute intervals, dropping bombs then flying back to reload. My wife Nadia is Lebanese and grew up with war. It didn't faze her one little bit – but it certainly unnerved me."

 

McCulloch's son, Thomas Saleem, wearing a Scotland football shirt and playing
nearby, says, "Boom boom!" when Dad asks what the war was like.

The 2006 Lebanon war, known locally as the July War and in Israel as the
Second Lebanon War, was a 34-day battle between, primarily, Hezbollah fighters
and the Israeli Defence Force. The fighting started on July 12, 2006, and
continued until a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations went into effect a
month later. The brief conflict – brought to the public by 24-hour satellite
news channels and the internet – killed more than a thousand people, most of
them Lebanese civilians, and severely damaged the nation's infrastructure.
Nearly one million Lebanese were displaced from their homes – as were between
300,000 and 500,000 Israelis across the border.

 

Though the fighting ceased after 34 days and the war ended for the
politicians, Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah, 18 months on it continues to cast
a dark shadow over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon.

The UN estimates that during the conflict, Israel dropped four million bombs.
During the last 48 hours of the war alone, around a million cluster bombs are
thought to have been dropped on southern Lebanon, rendering huge swathes of
land uninhabitable. When the refugees returned to their villages after the
ceasefire they found thousands of unexploded cluster bombs littered like some
sadistic plague upon the land. They lay on roads, in gardens, in fields, on
roofs, in doorways, inside offices and shops, in homes, in children's bedrooms
and in graveyards; even the foliage of plants and trees contained hundreds of
the devices, a deadly, hidden harvest waiting to be reaped.

 

In the first four months following the ceasefire, there were 209 casualties
from these bombs – more than one person injured every day. Since then hundreds
more – including many children – have been either killed or maimed for life by
cluster munitions.

 

The legacy is not lost on 43-year-old McCulloch. Originally from Ayrshire, he
was evacuated from Beirut with his wife and son aboard a Royal Navy warship,
along with thousands of other British ex-pats, and taken to safety in Cyprus.
From there they were flown to London and wound up at his sister's place in
Perth. But when the fighting stopped, they were keen to return home. There, of
course, they had to deal with the aftermath of war.

 

WAIDEH TURKIEH also fled her house but returned as soon as the ceasefire was
announced. The 50-year-old holds up a white ribbon to her chest as if it were
a medal."This is what killed my son," she says. Thin, drawn and looking older
than her years, she is dressed in mourning for the death of her eldest boy,
Ali, who was killed by a cluster bomb on August 15, 2006. The macabre memento
she holds is from the explosive device that blew up in his face. "I call this
the medal of death," she says. She intends to wear mourning for the rest of
her life.

 

Ali, who was just 20 when he died, was Waideh's pride and joy. He was 'the
pillar' of the Turkieh family, she says. A considerate young man, he repaired
washing machines for a living, having given up his education early to help his
mother and father out financially. When I ask what her son looked like, Waideh
shows me a framed photograph. In the picture Ali has cropped, dark hair and
mischievous teenage eyes. He strongly resembles his father, Khaleed, who sits
next to me, drawing heavily on a cigarette.

 

Waideh, Khaleed and their daughter Hiba live in the village of Zowtar West in
the rolling, rugged hills of southern Lebanon. They are not far from the
border with Israel, the nation's neighbour and nemesis. In their home, with
its concrete roof full of gaping holes from missiles and flying shrapnel, the
emotional and physical scars of war are all too visible. Waideh takes back the
white ribbon from the bomb that killed her son and explains that the device
was lodged in a vine. "When we returned to our village after the ceasefire the
men went out checking for unexploded 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 says.

 

McCULLOCH LIVES on the outskirts of Nabatieh, a town about 30 minutes' drive
from the Israeli border, close to the Turkiehs' home. He has been here since
2003, after taking a job with Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a Manchester-based
charity that clears the debris of war in countries such as Angola, Cambodia
and Sudan. MAG began working in Lebanon in 2000, at the end of the First
Lebanon War, so McCulloch and his colleagues, many of them ex-British forces
bomb-disposal experts, were already clearing mines when the July War erupted.
The firestorm of cluster bombs means MAG's task now is immense.

McCulloch, a strapping man who once earned a living farming (and, on occasion,
as a bouncer on the doors of Motherwell's pubs and clubs), is a senior manager
with MAG, in charge of a fleet of customised, armoured vehicles that deal with
unexploded bombs. In the five years he has been with MAG, his work has taken
him to Albania, Angola and Sri Lanka.

 

"I suppose it's dangerous work, and not just with the bombs – everyone here
has a gun. I'm not just talking about the Hezbollah fighters either," he says,
adding jokingly that dealing with Motherwell's hard men on a Saturday night
was appropriate training for his subsequent career change.

Despite the black humour, McCulloch is patently aware of the frailty of his
existence. Just a few weeks ago, two of his colleagues were killed by an
explosive device while clearing contaminated land.

 

The work can be devastating. In Angola he had to take photographs of a
three-year-old who had died of severe head injuries. The boy had been running
about, chasing an insect, when he stood on a device. He was fatally injured
when it exploded.

 

We drive to the village of Yohmor, a couple of miles from the border with
Israel. A 30-minute journey rises and dips through dusty villages where
posters of teenage martyrs join portraits of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan
Nasrallah on lamp posts and buildings. The images flutter in the breeze
alongside the flags of the main political factions, Amal and Hezbollah, the
latter's emblem a green Kalashnikov rifle on a yellow background.
Incongruously, the odd KFC outlet appears at the roadside.

 

We bump along past army checkpoints and the remains of bombed buildings until
the remains of Beaufort Castle appear in the distance. Built by the Crusaders,
the castle has been occupied by countless armies over the centuries, including
Saladin, the Ottomans, the French, the Palestinians and the Israelis. The
south has a turbulent history and Beaufort has borne witness to much of the
mayhem.

 

In the shadow of the castle lies the village of Yohmor, home to 5,500 people.
When the July War ended, MAG inspected the damage. It found that of the
village's 600 homes, 260 were severely damaged, including 40 that were
completely razed to the ground. Nearly half the population was left homeless.

Most of the roads were damaged and the surrounding area – much of it olive
groves up to 500 years old and grazing land vital to the local economy – was
blanketed with cluster bombs. Two villagers died and three were injured in the
immediate aftermath as the locals made their first attempt to clear their
land; tragically, one of these deaths occurred as the victim was clearing the
entrance to the cemetery in order to bury a friend who'd died during the
fighting.

 

Every family who returned to Yohmor after fleeing the fighting faced profound
changes. The area is famous for its olive oil – but 33,000 trees are now out
of bounds and two years' worth of the crop has been lost already.

MAG has focused its efforts on trying to make the land safe for villagers to
farm, since many have been left penniless. "We've had no financial help from
the Lebanese government because this is viewed as Hezbollah land," says Moh
Ali Korrah, a village elder in Yohmor. "People here have to take great risks
to be able to eat."

 

AT THE time of writing, some 2,610 explosive devices have been removed from
Yohmor, and around 134,000 in total across southern Lebanon. This deadly task
has been done not just by MAG, but by other charities and the Lebanese army.

Clearing bombs is a painstakingly slow process. In an olive grove we watch a
row of eight people wearing plastic face guards, blue flak jackets and yellow
gloves. They are on their knees, bent over, their masks nearly touching the
ground as they carefully inch forward, checking for explosives with their
fingertips in the reddish-brown earth. I ask how much protection they would
have if a device exploded. Youseff Hayek, the supervisor, explains that
devices are designed to pierce armour-plating and can go through concrete 20cm
thick. The teams are trained to move together in a line. They always kneel,
Hayek says, because if they stood their legs would be shredded with shrapnel
in the event of a blast.

 

Medics nearby smoke cigarettes and watch closely.

The clean-up operation seems a nigh-on impossible task, but MAG's
effectiveness would soar if Israel was willing to provide information on where
the bombs were dropped and the number of land-mines and cluster bombs it used
during the war. Until it does, Lebanon will never be completely bomb-free,
says McCulloch.

 

The use of cluster bombs is highly controversial, not just here but all over
the world. The Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, recently quoted an
unidentified military leader in the Israeli air force as saying his unit
dropped 1.2 million bombs during the July War. "What we did was crazy and
brutal," he told the paper.

 

Israel has refused to participate in the Oslo Process which aims to endorse an
international treaty banning cluster bombs which "cause unacceptable and
indiscriminate harm to civilians". The second treaty conference takes place in
New Zealand next month and 80 countries are taking part; Israel – not the only
nation to stock and use cluster bombs – will not attend. Neither will the USA
or Lebanon. Ran Gidor, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London, says
cluster bombs are perfectly legal. He admits they were deployed during the war
but insists they were used solely on military targets. "Israel is a signatory
to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which covers modern warfare, as is
the USA and the UK, and we are interested in reforming the use of cluster
bombs," he says. "We have 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."

 

Where do these bombs come from? Globally, 34 countries are together known to
have produced more than 210 different types of air-dropped and
surface-launched cluster munitions. The United States is the world's largest
stockpiler of the weapons and has deployed them most recently in Iraq and
Afghanistan.

 

As a non-governmental organisation, MAG remains neutral. McCulloch himself
says he doesn't "give a f*** about any of the politics – we do our job whether
it's Lebanon, Angola or Iraq. All we're concerned about is stopping another
wee lassie getting her leg blown off."

 

THE CONTINUING HUMAN suffering in the aftermath of war is hard to avoid in
Lebanon. At a school in the village of Siddiquin, which is hosting an event to
mark International Day for Cluster Bomb Victims, a couple of hundred excited
schoolchildren have gathered in the main hall to watch a magician. Many of
them have been traumatised by the fighting. The walls are covered in balloons
and posters produced by Unicef to educate children on what cluster bombs look
like and what to do if they find one. For some, the advice is too late.

 

Eight-year-old Mahmoud Balmas lost his right eye after kicking a cluster bomb
outside his home last July. Seventeen-year-old Raasha Zayoun lost her left leg
below the knee and had her hearing damaged when a bomb exploded in her
living-room last January. It had accidentally been brought home inside a bag
of herbs her father had collected; her mother and brother were also injured in
the blast.

 

At the end of the show some of the children start to burst balloons. "Pop!
Pop! Pop!" The noise echoes loudly round the hall. Raasha's face turns white
with shock. The pain of war doesn't end with a ceasefire.
The EU's ECHO department, which provides aid across the world, funded Billy

Briggs' trip to Lebanon.


Reporters without borders

 

IFJ

 

NUJ

 

INSP