London -- Monday September 18, 2006
Deadly harvest: The Lebanese fields sown with cluster bombs
Lebanese villagers must risk death in fields 'flooded' with more than a million Israeli cluster bombs - or leave crops to rot
By Patrick Cockburn in Nabatiyeh The war in Lebanon has not ended. Every day, some of the million bomblets which were fired by Israeli artillery during the last three days of the conflict kill four people in southern Lebanon and wound many more.
The casualty figures will rise sharply in the next month as villagers begin the harvest, picking olives from trees whose leaves and branches hide bombs that explode at the smallest movement. Lebanon's farmers are caught in a deadly dilemma: to risk the harvest, or to leave the produce on which they depend to rot in the fields.
In a coma in a hospital bed in Nabatiyeh lies Hussein Ali Ahmad, a 70-year-old man from the village of Yohmor. He was pruning an orange tree outside his house last week when he dislodged a bomblet; it exploded, sending pieces of shrapnel into his brain, lungs and kidneys. "I know he can hear me because he squeezes my hand when I talk to him," said his daughter, Suwad, as she sat beside her father's bed in the hospital.
At least 83 people have been killed by cluster munitions since the ceasefire, according to independent monitors.
Some Israeli officers are protesting at the use of cluster bombs, each containing 644 small but lethal bomblets, against civilian targets in Lebanon. A commander in the MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) unit told the Israeli daily Haaretz that the army had fired 1,800 cluster rockets, spraying 1.2 million bomblets over houses and fields. "In Lebanon, we covered entire villages with cluster bombs," he said. "What we did there was crazy and monstrous." What makes the cluster bombs so dangerous is that 30 per cent of the bomblets do not detonate on impact. They can lie for years - often difficult to see because of their small size, on roofs, in gardens, in trees, beside roads or in rubbish - waiting to explode when disturbed.
In Nabatiyeh, the modern 100-bed government hospital has received 19 victims of cluster bombs since the end of the war. As we arrived, a new patient, Ahmad Sabah, a laboratory technician at the hospital, was being rushed into the emergency room. A burly man of 45, he was unconscious on a stretcher. Earlier in the morning, he had gone up to the flat roof of his house to check the water tank. While there, he must have touched a pile of logs he was keeping for winter fires. Unknown to him, a bomblet had fallen into the woodpile a month earlier. The logs shielded him from the full force of the blast, but when we saw him, doctors were still trying to find out the extent of his injuries.
"For us, the war is still going on, though there was a cease-fire on 14 August," said Dr Hassan Wazni, the director of the hospital. "If the cluster bombs had all exploded at the time they landed, it would not be so bad, but they are still killing and maiming people."
The bomblets may be small, but they explode with devastating force. On the morning of the ceasefire, Hadi Hatab, an 11-year old boy, was brought dying to the hospital. "He must have been holding the bomb close to him," Dr Wazni said. "It took off his hands and legs and the lower part of his body."
We went to Yohmor to find where Hussein Ali Ahmad had received his terrible wounds while pruning his orange tree. The village is at the end of a broken road, six miles south of Nabatiyeh, and is overlooked by the ruins of Beaufort Castle, a crusader fortress on a ridge above the deep valley along which the Litani river runs.
Israeli bombs and shells have turned about a third of the houses in Yohmor into concrete sandwiches, one floor falling on top of another under the impact of explosions. Some families camp in the ruins. Villagers said that they were most worried by the cluster bombs still infesting their gardens, roofs and fruit trees. In the village street, were the white vehicles of the Manchester-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), whose teams are trying to clear the bomblets.
It is not an easy job. Whenever members of one of the MAG teams finds and removes a bomblet, they put a stick, painted red on top and then yellow, in the ground. There are so many of these sticks that it looks as if some sinister plant had taken root and is flourishing in the village.
"The cluster bombs all landed in the last days of the war," said Nuhar Hejazi, a surprisingly cheerful 65-year-old woman. "There were 35 on the roof of our house and 200 in our garden so we can't visit our olive trees." People in Yohmor depend on their olive trees and the harvest should begin now before the rains, but the trees are still full of bomblets. "My husband and I make 20 cans of oil a year which we need to sell," Mrs Hejazi says. "Now we don't know what to do." The sheer number of the bomblets makes it almost impossible to remove them all.
Frederic Gras, a de-mining expert formerly in the French navy, who is leading the MAG teams in Yohmor, says: "In the area north of the Litani river, you have three or four people being killed every day by cluster bombs. The Israeli army knows that 30 per cent of them do not explode at the time they are fired so they become anti-personnel mines."
Why did the Israeli army do it? The number of cluster bombs fired must have been greater than 1.2 million because, in addition to those fired in rockets, many more were fired in 155mm artillery shells. One Israeli gunner said he had been told to "flood" the area at which they were firing but was given no specific targets. M. Gras, who personally defuses 160 to 180 bomblets a day, says this is the first time he seen cluster bombs used against heavily populated villages.
An editorial in Haaretz said that the mass use of this weapon by the Israeli Defence Forces was a desperate last-minute attempt to stop Hizbollah's rocket fire into northern Israel. Whatever the reason for the bombardment, the villagers in south Lebanon will suffer death and injury from cluster bombs as they pick their olives and oranges for years to come.