Declan Walsh / The Guardian – 2006-08-22 00:41:50
YAHMOUR, Lebanon (August 21, 2006) — When the guns went silent in Aitta Shaab, a war-ravaged village close to the Israeli border, three children skipped through the rubble looking for a little fun.
Hurdling over lumps of crushed concrete and dodging spikes of twisted metal, Sukna, Hassan and Merwa, aged 10 to 12, paused before a curious object. Sukna picked it up. The terrifying blast flung her to the ground, thrusting metal shards into her liver. Hassan’s abdomen was cut open. Merwa was hit in the leg and arm.
“We thought it was just a little ball,” said Hassan with a hoarse whisper in the intensive care ward at Tyre’s Jabal Amel hospital. In the next bed Sukna, a ventilator cupped to her mouth and a tangle of tubes from her arms, said even less.
Her mother watched anxiously. “The Israelis wanted to defeat Hizbullah,” said Najah Saleh, 40. “But what did these children ever do to them?”
Israel may be pulling out of Lebanon but its soldiers leave behind a lethal legacy of this summer’s 34-day war. The south is carpeted with unexploded cluster bombs, innocuous looking black canisters, barely larger than a torch battery, which pose a deadly threat to villagers stumbling back to their homes.
Mine-clearing teams scrambling across the region have logged 89 cluster bomb sites so far, and expect to find about 110 more. Meanwhile, casualties are being taken into hospital – four dead and 21 injured so far. Officials fear the toll could eventually stretch into the thousands.
“We already had a major landmine problem from previous Israeli invasions, but this is far worse,” said Chris Clark of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in Tyre, standing before a map filled with flags indicating bomb sites.
Cluster bombs are permitted under international law, but UN and human rights officials claim Israel violated provisions forbidding their use in urban areas. “We’re finding them in orange plantations, on streets, in cars, near hospitals – pretty much everywhere,” Mr Clark said.
The bombs are ejected from artillery shells in mid-flight, showering a wide area with explosions that can kill within 10 metres (33ft). But up to a quarter fail to explode, creating minefields that kill civilians once the war is over. A decades-old campaign to ban them has failed.
Israel turned to cluster bombs in the last week of the war, apparently frustrated at the failure of conventional weapons to rout Hizbullah fighters from their foxholes. Mine-clearance teams are finding evidence pointing to their provenance: the US, the world’s largest cluster bomb manufacturer, which gave Israel $2.2bn (£1.2bn) in military aid last year.
In Nabatiye, 15 people were injured in just one day along a bomb-strewn road. In Tibnin, 210 bombs were found around the town hospital. “That’s about as inappropriate [a use of cluster bombs] as you can get,” Mr Clark said.
In Yahmour, a hilly frontline village that has become a complex urban minefield, minesweepers from the UK-based Mine Action Group have cleared the main roads and some house entrances. But danger lurks everywhere. One elderly woman lost her leg in an explosion last Monday as she swept her yard.
Now holes pock the road, yellow tape appears around fields and houses, and residents tip-toe around the “grape bombs”. Ilham Tarhini, 45, stood at her front door appealing for help. After returning from refuge in Syria three days ago she found tiny bomblets poking from the soil of her garden of olive trees. From where she was standing she could count eight: “I’m afraid to step into the streets.”
But the most volatile payload sat in Jamil Zuhoor’s living room. During the war an unexploded rocket packed with bomblets punched through his front wall, skidding to a halt before a chest of drawers. “I can’t see us moving back in here for another year at least,” he said, shutting the door of his shattered house.
The UN is appealing for money and minesweepers. With such help it hopes the worst-hit areas can be cleared within six months, Mr Clarke said. But until then residents live in fear.
Many share the blame equally between Israel and the US. “It’s like we are living in a prison,” said Aisa Hussain, 38, a Yahmour resident who has ordered his children to remain inside his house.
Strolling through the village he pointed to yet another tiny black canister perched under a tree. “You see what America is sending us,” he said bitterly. “This is their idea of democracy.”
Cluster bombs were first used by the Germans in the second world war but have become a standard weapon for many countries, including Britain, France and Italy.
The most popular delivery device, the American-made M26 rocket, scatters 644 bomblets over 20,000 square metres. Under test conditions up to 23% of bomblets from the M26 failed to explode on impact. The United States keeps 370,000 such rockets in stock.
The M26 inflicted hundreds of civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003, says Human Rights Watch, over populated areas. The British army used M26s in the 1991 Gulf war
The US halted cluster bomb exports to Israel in 1982 after indiscriminate use against civilians but rescinded the ban in 1988.
Belgium is the only country in the world that has banned cluster bombs.
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