Economic crisis affects Lebanon de-mining

NABATIEH, Lebanon — The pock marks on the walls of 45-year-old Salima Barakat's house are not unusual for this part of southern Lebanon. Bullet and shrapnel marks of varying ages remind longtime residents of the many wars and occupations, notably the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. 

Less visable are the scars on Salima's own body, which also tell a story — that of one of millions of cluster bombs dropped by Israel during the 2006 offensive. It landed in Salima's kitchen, exploded and left shrapnel lodged in various parts of her anatomy.

“It tore my intestines open,” says Barakat, pulling at her stomach through her acid-green overgarment. “My fingers were hurt and some hit my head. Some fragments came through the sole of my foot up to the upper foot and it still hurts.”

The 2006 conflict also added to the layers of mines laid in previous conflicts, wars and occupations. Some 205 square kilometers of Lebanese soil remain contaminated — 165 square kilometers by mines and some 40 square kilometers by cluster bombs.

Particularly hard-hit is southern Lebanon, where the local economy is dependent on agriculture. In Salima's olive grove, 10 of the trees were felled during the conflict and the rest didn't bear olives for two years, she says. Southern Lebanon's agricultural output is estimated to have shrunk 25 percent due to contaminated land and damaged plantations.

But on the hill slopes around Salima's house, several de-mining teams are hard at work trying to win back precious terrain and reverse the fortunes of the people living here. From afar, they look like clusters of beetles, their helmets, visors and body armor glistening occasionally under the hot Lebanese sun.

A de-miner scans for expolsives.
(Don Duncan/GlobalPost)

“Now we have a really big effect,” says Hamad Dothman, 34, a site manager for U.K.-based de-mining NGO Mine Action Group (MAG). He oversees several teams at work not far from Salima Barakat's house. “You can see all the locals now planting their land and building their new houses and you can see many new constructions.”

But these days, the teams are never sure if they will be back at work the following week. De-mining in Lebanon has all but ground to a halt since the global recession hit.

Lebanon was one of the land mine hot spots in the world that was within sight of full clearance. Experts envisaged a Lebanon free of land mines and cluster bombs as early as the end of next year. But that was before the money began to dry up.

Since 2007, the number of de-mining teams clearing Lebanese soil has shrunk almost threefold to just over 40 teams. Many of the NGOs have had to pull their Lebanese teams and refocus their resources on more acute mine hot spots, such as Iraq, Gaza and the Republic of Congo.

“The war in Lebanon occurred three years ago and since then we have had earthquakes, and major wars,” said Christine Bennike, Lebanon country manager for Mine Advisory Group. “So of course funding will be realigned to where the most recent disaster or needs are.”

For people living here, this realignment simply means the mines — and the danger and hardship they bring — will be around for much longer.

“It also means there will be an increased number of civilian casualties,” Bennike says. “These are the negative results of lack of funding.”

Remaining NGOs like Mine Advisory Group are having to shake foreign governments — their traditional funding sources — harder for cash. But they're also having to innovate and develop new funding models in order to stay operational.

“We're only limited by our imaginations,” said Bennike, who spends much of her time researching and writing up grant proposals to unlock funds to replace those she once could rely on from foreign governments.

To many Lebanese, mine clearance has been somewhat an international problem solved with international money — until now. The funding crisis and the disappearance of de-mining NGOs is shifting the issue squarely into the domestic realm. The Lebanese Army is having to pick up the slack left in the wake of departing NGOs by training and putting its own teams out on the field. The next step is to open and stimulate domestic channels of funding to the problem.

“This is Lebanon and we'd like the Lebanese to start to participate in funding and providing support for us,” Bennike said.

In the meantime, Lebanon's dwindling army of de-miners will continue their increasingly painstaking task and Salima Barakat, like much of southern Lebanon, awaits her olive grove to bear a full harvest once again.