Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

LEBANON: Women in the Frontline for Clearing Cluster Bombs

Rebecca Murray

TYRE, Lebanon, Aug 8 2007 (IPS) - "Mine action is a male dominated sector, but it doesn't have to be," declares Christina Bennike, the dynamic head of Danish charity Dan Church Aid (DCA) in south Lebanon. "I really felt it would be important to address this from the beginning, then it would be natural instead of something different or unique."

Neamat Kassab - cluster bombs clearer. Credit: Rick Bajornas

Neamat Kassab - cluster bombs clearer. Credit: Rick Bajornas

DCA, together with the government-backed Swedish Rescue Services Agency, has taken the innovative step of hiring both men and women as searchers to do the challenging work of Battle Area Clearance (BAC) – methodically clearing the land of deadly cluster bombs, a metre at a time.

"We've had the first integrated teams in Lebanon and it's working out well," Bennike told IPS on phone. "They understand they are here to do a job, and return the land to the people."

Bennike has also brought two female supervisors from Kosovo on board to lead the mixed BAC teams, something unprecedented in Lebanon's traditional mine action community.

An estimated four million cluster bombs were dropped over south Lebanon by Israel during last summer's conflict, with roughly one million that didn't explode strewn throughout villages, gardens, roads, fields and valleys.

"What we are finding here is unprecedented," says Tekimiti Gilbert, chief of operations for the United Nations Mine Action Centre (UNMACC), the official body tasked with coordinating cluster bomb clearance in south Lebanon. "And see where they were dropped – in the villages and around built up areas. South Lebanon as you know is the size of a postage stamp. To have that number of cluster bombs falling in such a small area is just unbelievable."

So far BAC teams fanned out across the south have cleared over 120,000 cluster bombs from Lebanese soil. Many of the searchers are from contaminated towns, who were under Israeli bombardment last summer.

Neamat Khassab, a 22-year-old, found her village of Siddiqine, near Qana, devastated by Israel's bombing campaign. She is now a searcher for DCA clearing residential houses and gardens in the rural town centre of Soultaniye.

She is the only female in the team and works fast with quiet confidence as her yellow metal detector skims the ground. "These guys are like my family," she smiles, pointing towards her team mates. "Of course when I started I was a little bit afraid, but when I got to know them I felt at home."

Terrain and weather are the biggest factors in the gruelling work of a searcher. The winter cold is bracing, and heavy rains drive cluster bombs underground, or entangle them in growing vegetation come spring. The hot summer sun dries out the soil, making it difficult to dig bombs out. The heat is almost unbearable for a searcher wearing a heavy helmet and vest, and dehydration is their biggest enemy.

Cluster bomb strikes on banana, olive and citrus plantations can be hidden in the bush, or entangled in the branches up above. The threat of snake, spider and scorpion bites is very real. And this is just the physical side. Mentally a searcher must stay focused for the entire day of work, because to let the mind wander could be treacherous.

Most searchers train up to a month. "Having a mixed team keeps a balance within the teams," says Chris Fielding, operations manager for DCA. "At the moment the women are performing as well as the men – no problems." He adds, "I believe these girls can carry a stretcher 100, 200 metres if needed, they go through the same physical training as the guys…they pretty much get their hair and nails dirty and it's something they live with quite well."

For women, there is the added pressure of defying traditional gender roles. Some have dropped out of training because of family pressure about the danger of the task, while a few others don't tell their families what they do for work.

Moussa Chaalan, the fiancé of DCA medic Heba Daher, says that many men he knows think a woman's place is in the home, in the kitchen. However, he adds, "not all of them; because of the economic situation men and women both have to work."

In Lebanon's dismal economy, the average salary in the south is around 200 dollars a month. Demining organisations are offering searchers the substantially higher wage of 750 to 850 dollars a month. "A lot of women come to demining by necessity," says Christina Bennike. "It is work and they don't have family support, and this is the last option for them. It's not a natural choice."

Batoul Milije, a divorced mother working to support her 12-year-old son, is a searcher on Soultaniye's pastoral outskirts where a teenage boy was killed by a cluster bomb at the end of last year. "I never had to work like this," she says. "I told the guys – I'm like a guy, I'm going to be tough." She adds with a sigh, "I'm the only one for my son."

There have been few injuries among demining teams, who take safety very seriously. The last place women got injured removing cluster bombs was in Kosovo. Two lost their legs.

"That is one concern you have when you hire females," explains Bennike. "The downside is that the recovery period for a female injured in the field is much slower, and the social ramifications are much different for a handicapped or a female amputee than for a male. Her position in society is much lower."

A condemnation of cluster munitions has gained momentum this year, with the mass dumping of munitions over Lebanon cited as a good reason for a total ban on the deadly weapons.

In Lebanon, the UNMACC has been asked by the army to stay an extra year and coordinate clearance until the end of 2008, given the reality that it will take this long to comb through all towns, gardens and agricultural fields for residual bombs.

Republish | | Print |

junky the book