Cluster bombs: a war's perilous aftermath

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Cease-fires end wars. Or so the Zayoun family thought, when Israel and Hizbullah agreed nearly six months ago to stop battling.

But instead, this poverty-stricken Lebanese Shiite household found new agony when a remnant of this war was brought into their living room: one Israeli cluster bomblet, out of an estimated 1 million such unexploded munitions that carpet southern Lebanon.

The US State Department said last week that Israel "likely could have" misused American-supplied cluster bombs by peppering civilian areas from which, Israel says, Hizbullah was operating. Similar Israeli usage in 1982 led to a six-year ban of US sales of the controversial weapon, though analysts do not expect such a sanction of the US ally today.

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But as UN-organized demining teams toil across olive groves and tobacco farms to destroy what they call an "unprecedented" concentration of the controversial cluster bombs here, the casualties continue to mount.

The Zayoun family alone accounts for three of a postwar Lebanese toll that today stands at 184 wounded and 30 dead.

Father Mohammed blames himself for picking up the small metal cylinder and putting it in his bag while cutting thyme in a field that had been marked with red and white warning tape.

Just after nightfall, with the house lit only by a few candles, his 4-year-old daughter Aya Zayoun found the cluster bomb in her father's bag outside. She took it inside to the living room and handed it to her older sister, Rasha, who thought it was a toy bell.

Then it exploded.

"[Mohammed] was ready to kill himself with the guilt," says mother Alia Salman, who was struck with small pieces of shrapnel during the Jan. 5 incident. Son Qassem was hit, too, and 16-year-old Rasha lost her lower leg.

"It's a big shock for [Mohammed] to see his daughter without her leg. Every time he looks at her, his heart is bleeding," says Mrs. Salman.

She says Rasha was "like a genie, jumping around, strong and tough." But now the mother's tears well when Rasha shows the bandaged stump; and Aya clings to her mother shyly, still smarting from being pointed out as "the little girl who carried [the cluster bomb] inside."

'Unprecedented' concentration

Such human shock waves are no surprise for the 55 demining teams working under a UN umbrella, which have never seen such heavily contaminated terrain.

"The scope was extensive and unprecedented in any modern use of these types of cluster weapons," compared to Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, says Chris Clark, the program manager for the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre of South Lebanon, in Tyre.

UN figures show that 26 percent of southern Lebanon's cultivatable land has been affected, and that 34 million square meters – or 13 square miles – are contaminated.

Israeli officials assert that the cluster bombs were used against military targets, in accord with the international laws of war. Hizbullah also used cluster bombs, though on a much small scale. Human Rights Watch documented two Chinese-made rockets that contained 39 pellet-filled bomblets each, while Israeli police say Hizbullah fired 113 cluster rockets, among the nearly 4,000 Katyushas that rained down on northern Israel.

"From what I saw here during the war, there were daily firings of Katyushas and other missiles from Hizbullah," says Mr. Clark, a 17-yearveteran of the British military's royal engineers. "The Israelis spent four weeks trying to neutralize that threat with single-unit bombing – either iron bombs or artillery. Clearly they failed to do that. So a switch to a [broader]area-type weapon– which is what a cluster bomb is – would make some form of military logic."

Most bombs were fired in final days

Still, the UN says that nearly all the Israeli cluster bombs were fired in the last three days of the conflict, after a UN ceasefire deal had been reached, but before it came into effect – thereby yielding little military advantage. The timing of the Israeli strikes is "definitely questionable," says Clark.

One of Israel's own probes into the conduct of the general staff found last month that the war was "carried out with no clear objective," according to an account of remarks about the probe by Dan Shomron to a Knesset committee, as reported in the Haaretz newspaper.

The former chief of staff said that Israeli forces could not "translate into a military operation the instructions given by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to prevent rockets from being fired at Israel."

With just days left in the conflict, Israel asked for expedited delivery of 1,300 bombs of a US version which carries 644 comblets each.

The result of the final flurry of Israeli cluster-bomb strikes – the UN has recorded 841 "strike locations" so far – is clear on the steep slopes of the village of Hallousieh, 10 miles northeast of Tyre, where limestone outcroppings punctuate rows of aged olive trees.

The deminers call this site CBU-362, where they have found 728 items after three months of work.

It is tedious work, picking through green weeds or bramble for tennis-ball-sized bomblets that can explode with the slightest touch. Most are resting where they fall, with upwards of a 70 percent dud rate. But metal detectors are required: one bomblet discovered last week had buried itself a foot underground on impact.

"As we were clearing, farmers did their harvest, coming in behind us," says Neil Arnold, a BACTEC site supervisor and former Royal Engineer in the British Army. The area is also rife with impacts of regular ordnance, though traces of any Hizbullah target have long since disappeared.

"[The Israelis] were targeting something, but we do not know what it was," says Mr. Arnold, as Lebanese deminers set up search lanes with tape, and carefully dig up every item that sets off the yellow-wand metal detectors.

These men continue outward in a 50-yard radius from the last cluster munition that they find.

Deminers have already found nearly 100,000 bomblets since August, and – calculating a rate of 55 teams, working 20 days a month at 3,000 square yards per day – hope to have most of the clearing done by the end of this year. The total cost is estimated to be $40 million.

Weekly human toll lessening

But the human cost is high, too, despite saturation efforts to warn southern Lebanese returning to homes vacated during the war to take care, don't touch, and to report any unmarked munitions. Israeli officials argue that the absence of civilians in these villages when they actually fired the cluster bombs at Hizbullah targets,makes their use legal.

The education effort has cut the number of casualties from five or six per day last August, when hundreds of thousands of civilians returned to homes and fields carpeted with bomblets, to just two or three a week.

Caught in the middle are families like Rasha's, which is so poor that it had not been able to buy crutches for their daughter a month after the explosion.

In a room with virtually bare walls, the blast hole in the wall – and outward spray of shrapnel around and on the ceiling – has not yet been plastered and painted over.

That reminder that has not helped Mrs. Salman quell her fears, or her nightmares.

"My life, and the life of my daughter: It is very difficult to face how it was, and how is has become," says Salman. "I see so many horrific bad dreams... It doesn't go out of my mind. My son woke me this morning, and I was crying in my dreams."

Rasha herself has been antsy, still in bed in the living room when she wants to be outside with her friends playing. She's been promised a prosthetic limb in seven months.

"My life has changed, and I hope it will improve," says Rasha. Fortunately, she adds, one of her favorite pastimes does not depend on use of her legs: "I like to draw."

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