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Live Cluster Bombs Lethal Leftover In Lebanon Following Israeli War

By Michael Slackman
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BEIRUT, LEBANON

Since the war between Israel and Hezbollah ended in August, nearly three people have been wounded or killed each day by cluster bombs Israel dropped in the waning days of the war, and officials now say it will take more than a year to clear the region of them.

U.N. officials estimate that southern Lebanon is littered with 1 million unexploded bomblets, far outnumbering the 650,000 people living in the region. They are stuck in the branches of olive trees and the broad leaves of banana trees. They are on rooftops, mixed in with rubble and littered across fields, farms, driveways, roads and outside schools.

As of Sept. 28, officials here said, cluster bombs had severely wounded 109 people — and killed 18 others.

Muhammad Hassan Sultan, a slender brown-haired 12-year-old, became a postwar casualty when the shrapnel from a cluster bomb cut into his head and neck. He was from Sawane, a hillside village with a panoramic view of terraced olive farms and rolling hills. Muhammad was sitting on a hip-high wall, watching a bulldozer clear rubble, when the machine bumped into a tree.

A flash of a second later he was fatally injured when a cluster bomblet dropped from the branches. “I took Muhammad to the hospital in my car, but he was already dead,” said Yousef Ftouni, a resident of the village.

The entire village was littered with the bomblets, and as Ftouni recounted Muhammad’s death, Lebanese army soldiers worked their way through an olive grove, blowing up unexploded munitions in a painfully slow process of clearance.

Cluster bombs are legal if aimed at military targets and are very effective, military experts say. Nonetheless, Israel has been heavily criticized by U.N. officials, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for using cluster bombs, because they are difficult to focus exclusively on military targets. Israel was also criticized because it fired most of its cluster bombs in the last days of the war, when the U.N. Security Council was negotiating a resolution to end the conflict.

Officials calculate that if they are lucky, and money from international donors does not run out, it will take 15 months to clear the area. There are now about 300 Lebanese army soldiers and 30 other clearance teams, each of up to 30 experts, working on the problem of unexploded bomblets.

The U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center in southern Lebanon recorded 745 locations across the south where unexploded bombs had been found. Of the million estimated to be scattered around, so far 4,500 have been disposed of, according to the center.

“Our priority at the moment is to clean houses, main roads and gardens so that the displaced people can return to their villages,” said Col. Mohammad Fahmy, head of the national mine clearing office. “The next stage will be cleaning agricultural lands.”

In Lebanon there are two explanations of why Israel unleashed cluster bombs at the end of the war: to inflict as much damage as possible on Hezbollah before withdrawing, or to litter the south with unexploded cluster bombs as a strategy to keep people from returning right away.