“’Don’t forget our land.’ Those the last words my father left me with before he died. I told him I would never forget,” said J. Aouad, speaking about the olive groves in Tulah, Batroun District, Lebanon, that had been in his family for generations.
“In our culture here in Lebanon, land is everything. This land was our life and our livelihood and it made us rich,” says Jihad. “Then in 1979, it was taken from us. Landmines. In 1979, the Lebanese Civil War came to our land and a line was drawn across it. We were told to leave, and landmines and booby traps were set. I remember as a boy my father crying as he looked at the olive groves becoming thick with weeds. He couldn’t even put one foot inside to stop it.”
New landmines were added in 1981 and again in 1987. Over the years, several neighbors who did venture on to their land were killed. When the civil war finally ended in 1990, the landmines stayed in place. Without hope, Jihad’s father moved his family to Beirut to start a new life.
Today, parts of Lebanon remain heavily polluted with landmines, cluster munitions, and other unexploded ordnance leftover from decades of conflict. Since 2006, Handicap International demining teams have been clearing these legacies of war in partnership with the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC) with the goal of making Lebanon landmine free by 2020.
In 2010, LMAC asked Handicap International to begin clearing mines in Batroun District, North Lebanon. With their headquarters based on a windswept hilltop in Tulah, three teams of Handicap International deminers have cleared more than 265,000 square meters of land here since 2011. They recently cleared a one acre field where they found and destroyed 73 landmines.
“With the addition of a new team of deminers this year, the plan is clear all of Batroun District by 2016,” says Mohamed el Kaakour, the chief of operations for Handicap International. “We’ve assembled a group of highly disciplined, experienced deminers and I have great confidence in them.”
Mohamed, the first Lebanese chief of operations for Handicap International, takes his work very seriously, as he is intimately familiar with the risks posed by mines.
A 25-year veteran of the Lebanese Army, Mohammed had his left foot amputated in 1998 after stepping on a landmine during a clearance operation. He now wears a prosthesis.
“Back then we didn’t have all of the tools and safety rules we have now,” says Mohamed. “Today we follow very detailed safety procedures and we always have a nurse, medic, and ambulance driver with the teams in case of any accident.” Thankfully, no Handicap International team member has ever been hurt.
Standing on a hilltop, Mohamed survey’s minefield 1268, a 25,000 square meter plot of terraced land— J. Aouad’s land. The tops of olive trees peak out among the tangle of weeds and shrubs. “We’ve finished 19,000 square meters so far but it’s difficult work,” says Mohammed. “The hillsides are steep and rocky so we can’t use any machines or dogs; everything must be done by hand.”
Working in marked “lanes,” the deminers slowly, meticulous check each square meter of ground. After doing a visual inspection and using a metal rod to check for trip wires, they cut away the vegetation and grass with branch clippers and garden shears. Only then can they can use their metal detectors to check for dangerous objects.
“Last month we found two booby traps with live mortars,” says Mohamed El Ezzi, the site supervisor, pointing to red dots marked on a map of minefield 1268. “For me, each explosive that is located and destroyed represents a life saved.”
Indeed, in July 2014, the team finished clearing an olive grove of 60 olive trees which had not been tended to since 2004 after an antipersonnel landmine exploded and killed a shepherd. After the annual harvest in November, the landowner made around $5,600 from the sale of his olives.
Up the slopes from minefield 1268, J. Aouad walks among the olive trees on a piece of land that has already been returned to him. He touches the branches of the trees and finds a lone olive still remaining despite the December cold. The rest have already been harvested and taken to market.
“I am so happy,” laughs J. Aouad. “As soon as my land was returned I got a bulldozer to make a road to reach the olive trees I last stood under as a boy 23 years ago. It will take a lot of work to make the land fully productive again, but it’s a start.”
“It’s an honor for us to have the Commander and his men from Handicap International clear our land,” says J. Aouad as puts his arm around Mohamed el Kaakour. “They have given us our land and saved our children from accidents and death. What Handicap International is doing is for the future, the future of Lebanon and Lebanese children.”