Palestinians brave a hazardous profession

18 December 2007

TYRE, Lebanon, 18 December (IPS) - Kamel Mohammed was pruning lemon trees last winter when his red electric saw detonated an unexploded cluster bomb, blasting shrapnel all over his body. After an operation to remove the metal shards from his chest, Mohammed, a 44-year-old father from the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidieh in south Lebanon, went straight back to work cultivating fields and chopping wood for coal.

Not so lucky was his neighbor and fellow family man, Ahmad Huwaidi, 36, killed instantly when the remaining explosives in an old metal rocket he was cutting to sell ignited from the heat. But this is family business now. Ahmad’s older brother Salim says he has no choice but to continue selling scrap metal and labor in fields for about ten dollars a day — always looking out for unexploded ordnance, and detonating live munitions he finds in his path.

An unprecedented hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs were scattered throughout south Lebanon’s rural towns, agricultural fields and valleys by Israel in the final days of last year’s summer conflict. There have been 26 fatalities since the conflict’s end, and 196 wounded.

“After the war stopped people here thought it was like the old days, that they could deal with the bombs and move them, that they could carry them safely,” says Marwan Mansour, a Palestinian from Rashidieh working with Danish charity Dan Church Aid (DCA) in the camps to raise awareness about unexploded ordnance. “We have a number of casualties from here.”

Cluster bomb strikes surround Rashidieh, 15 kilometers north of the Israeli border, between acres of lush citrus and banana plantations and the Mediterranean Sea. Isolated in squalid, overcrowded quarters due to a national construction ban, Palestinians chafe under harsh Lebanese laws that prohibit them from employment in over 70 professions, including strict restrictions driving taxicabs, which many laborers turned to after the cluster bombs fell.

Since heightened tensions triggered by the fighting between the Lebanese army and extremist group Fatah al-Islam in the northern Nahr al-Bared refugee camp last summer, the army has clamped down on Rashidieh’s security checkpoint and perimeter. However, with the Fatah party in control, the poverty stricken camp remains one of Lebanon’s calmest.

Many of Rashidieh’s 25,000 residents — originally from the northern farming region of pre-1948 Palestine — grew up accustomed to seeing weapons on the streets, and suffered intense Israeli bombardment in 1982. This time the camp was mostly spared from bombing, and opened its doors as a safe haven for the hundreds of Shi’a refugees fleeing north and west from surrounding Lebanese villages.

Abu Ali Ahmad is a Rashidieh legend, having reportedly detonated thousands of cluster bombs single-handedly after the conflict ended in August 2006. He says he initially offered his services to landowners for free, wanting to help using his skills gained from experience in Palestinian training camps in the 1970s. When the overwhelming task inevitably became full-time, he and others from the camp were paid a few dollars for disarming each dangerous sub-munition.

But his efforts have been curbed after a controversial incident. Twelve-year-old Hammoudi Moussa’s legs were torn off by a cluster bomb blast while riding a motorbike with his father Samir on the conflict’s last weekend last year. Samir says they ran over the bomb while delivering food to a rural village, but many Rashidieh residents say he was transporting live cluster bombs.

Since then Tyre’s Mine Action Coordination Centre — staffed by the Lebanese army and the United Nations — has clamped down on freelancers like Abu Ali Ahmad, and expanded operations for clearance by the army, charity organizations, commercial groups and UN peacekeepers with a goal to finish the job by December 2008.

The Lebanese army is also running a national awareness campaign, but since it is barred from entering the Palestinian camps, the DCA is charged with filling the gap. “Through interactive presentations we give the message — ‘Don’t touch, Don’t approach, Report’,” says Noe Falk Nielson, DCA’s energetic Mine Risk Education (MRE) coordinator in charge of three mixed Palestinian and Lebanese teams.

“We try and give the appropriate message to groups of people,” Nielson says about the contrast of rural Rashidieh to Lebanon’s largest camp outside Sidon, Ein al-Hilwe, whose 70,000 Palestinians are crowded into two square kilometers in impoverished conditions, with tense rival armed factions in their midst.

“The direct risk especially for kids in Ein al-Hilwe is the ammunition kind,” says Nielson, whose team and school children months earlier were accidentally caught in the crossfire between militia Jund al-Sham and Fatah at the UNRWA school compound. “We are teaching about unexploded ordnance — which includes cluster bombs and landmines, and of course abandoned ammunition,” he says.

“The thing about the Palestinian camps is you need them to trust the trainer,” says Nielson. “People trust people they know from the community, it is important.”

Hussein Charary, a soft-spoken MRE facilitator from Rashidieh, often warns audiences about his own experience. “After the fighting in 1982 we were playing with bullets and I was injured — as well as my friend. Bullets were all over the street,” he says.

In anticipation of the Lebanese army’s mandatory February deadline calling for international charities like DCA to transfer their MRE programs to national organizations — which leaves the Palestinian camps with none — some of Nielson’s Palestinian team members have planned to launch the first Palestinian awareness group. Having met with army officials and DCA management to discuss viability and funding, they’ve decided to start their first year under the organization’s umbrella, and grow from there.

“The Palestinian camps need more MRE — especially the children,” says team member Helana Abdullah. “There are bombs in the camps, and children don’t know the dangers, and play with them. Also, children work with scrap metal — many work, we have child labor here — so they have to be aware.” Her colleague Ahmad Hamid agrees, adding, “We have the experience and the network. And we can’t just do an MRE visit once — we need to follow up.”

As for the field laborers of Rashidieh who brave deadly munitions daily just to make a living, a localized MRE program would illustrate recognition of the critical dangers they face, and the resilience to work for a better life.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.