Unexploded bombs hamper rural recovery

Hassan, 10, and a friend accidentally detonated a bomblet on their first day back in Aita Ech Chaab in the south (UNHCR/A. Branthwaite)

RAS AL-AIN/ TYRE - Now that war is over, farmers are returning to their land in southern Lebanon only to find their crops destroyed and their livelihoods ruined while unexploded bombs are hampering recovery.

Wafi Al-Khishin fled his banana plantation in Ras Al-Ain, outside Tyre in southern Lebanon, when Isreali air-strikes began in July to stay with relatives some 80 km away in the capital Beirut.

“When we came back, we found much of our land and crops burnt,” said Al-Khishin. “And what was not destroyed directly has died because of a lack of irrigation throughout the war.”

During the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah - a Lebanon-based Islamic militant group - Israel bombed parts of Lebanon on a daily basis, frequently hitting civilian areas, infrastructure and farmland.

Southern Lebanon, said to be a Hezbollah stronghold, was particularly hard hit by Israeli bombs.

Agriculture is the third largest component of the Lebonese economy, after tourism and industry. Southern Lebanon alone accounts for roughly 30 percent of the country’s total agricultural output, now decimated by the war.

Unexploded bombs are preventing many farmers from recovering what they can from their fields.

“Not only have we lost this season’s harvest, but the destruction of the land and the continued presence of cluster bombs mean we cannot work even now that the war is over to preserve what has survived from among our trees,” said Al-Khishin.

According to a preliminary early recovery report compiled by the Lebanese government, damage caused to the agricultural sector by the conflict is manifold.

“The nature of the damages ranges from the loss of buildings, agricultural infrastructure, equipment and machinery, ruined harvests, the inability to keep export commitments, and the drastic increase in unemployment among workers in all-subsectors,” the report reads.

Direct effects of the war caused by military operations include the destruction of proper irrigation channels and sources. “When farmers returned to their land, they found most wells and man-made springs struck by bombs too,” said Radwan Waznaeh, spokesperson for the agriculture ministry.

Banana and citrus plants are among the main crops cultivated in the south. “These need frequent irrigation,” said Al-Khishin. “Without water through the war, even those trees that have survived have been rendered unusable.”

Cluster Bombs

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 100,000 unexploded cluster bombs remain scattered throughout south Lebanon. Most of them were dropped during the last 72 hours of the conflict, when a cessation of hostilities had already been called for by the UN Security Council.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned Israel’s “immoral” use of cluster bombs.

“So long as our land remains contaminated by cluster bombs, it remains impossible for us to work on it,” said Al-Khishin. “My father insisted on walking through the farmland to check what has and hasn’t been damaged, and to check areas where he has found cluster bombs so our children won’t go near them. But it is very unsafe.”

The UN’s ongoing assessment of locations where cluster bombs have fallen has so far focussed on high priority inhabited areas. OCHA’s figure of 435 cluster bomb locations does not include farmland.

According to Tekimiti Gilbert, head of UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC) in Tyre, banana and citrus plantations have been heavily contaminated by cluster bombs. With initial work on clearing cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) now well underway on main roads, UNMACC and other agencies are now turning their attention to farmland.

“The relevant teams started to arrive last week. Ras Al-Ain is among our priorities,” said Gilbert, adding that the continued availability of funding is crucial to UXO clearance work.

Fearing for their lives during the war, hundreds of migrant workers, many of them from Syria, fled the country. Most have not returned.

But Al-Khishin and his family remain confident that once the cluster bombs have been cleared, all other problems will be surmountable.

“We have worked this land for generations. We just need the government and agencies to keep their promises to us to do what we cannot do alone - that is clear up the cluster bombs,” said Al-Khishin.

“Rest assured, however long it takes, we will get this land back into its best condition,” he said. “We farmers will be able to restore the land, and the workers will come back once it’s possible to work again.”

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