Clearing Libya of Landmines & Other Dangerous Explosives
Younis Saleh Alzway and his family were among the majority of civilians who fled their homes in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya when the Libyan revolution began more than a year ago. They returned months later, after forces loyal to Libya’s longtime autocrat, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, reclaimed the city.
Then, last June, Younis’ three children and two of their cousins were playing in a bedroom at Younis’ home when they found a strange object. The thing began to smoke and make an odd noise. They called to Younis who—realizing it was a grenade—grabbed it from them. He ordered everyone to leave the room, and held the explosive close to his chest to protect his family as best he could.
Seconds later, the grenade went off, killing him and two of his children instantly. His wife, who was standing at the entrance to the children’s room, sustained head injuries. The three children who survived were injured, as well. One incurred chest wounds and needs a retinal operation, while another lost her left eye and still has shrapnel in her legs. A cousin suffered wounds to her abdomen, back of her neck, stomach and right cheek.
Sadly, the family’s plight is not unusual in Libya. Although the major fighting seen during last year’s revolt ended when Gaddafi was killed last October, the threat to civilians remains. Countless anti-personnel landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW)—unexploded devices and missiles—litter Libya’s former combat zones, homes, schools and public spaces. To prevent accidents from these weapons, which are scattered throughout the country, our nongovernmental organization, Handicap International, is raising awareness of the dangers posed by the country’s ERW.
Located in North Africa along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Libya shares borders with Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia. The majority of its 6.4 million people speak Arabic and practice Islam. The main exports of this mostly desert nation are crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas.
In 2011, Gaddafi’s 42-year reign ended following a six-month uprising and ensuing civil war that was inspired, at least in part, by protests that are still sweeping through the Arab world, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. Libya is currently governed by the National Transitional Council, which emerged from the rebellion and announced plans to hold elections some time in 2012.
After the fighting ends in any country that has known war, the first thing people want to do is return home, even though their neighborhoods have been bombed and mined. As a result, many civilians unwittingly put themselves at risk.
The total number of casualties from landmines and ERW in Libya is unknown, but mine and ERW casualty estimates worldwide ranged from 1,852 to 12,258 through the end of 2010, according to the 2011 Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor. And the number of casualties from landmines and ERW—including cluster munition remnants—was expected to be significantly higher in 2011.
Our organization is working to reduce the incidence and effects of armed violence from landmines, unexploded ordnance, small arms and light weapons in 18 of the 63 countries where we operate, including Libya.
Humanitarian mine action is composed of a number of activities, including finding the mines, clearing them, educating the public that they exist, assisting those who have been harmed, and providing local, national and international advocacy.
Our campaign began in Libya in the spring of last year, soon after the revolt against Gaddafi began. We have since trained approximately 100 Libyan nationals to raise awareness among people at risk from mines and other ERW in areas of the country where much of the fighting occurred between rebel militias and forces loyal to Gaddafi.
We’ve worked closely with the Libyan Scouts, who swiftly moved into action in the cities of Ajdabiya, Benghazi and Brega, and who have been reaching out to displaced populations along the Tunisian and Egyptian borders.
“People are running huge risks because they don’t realize how dangerous these weapons can be,” says Ali Abdel Moneim Al Zayani, 21, a Scout trained by our organization. “People pick up unexploded ordnance and keep them as battlefield souvenirs. Children play with them, and other people organize displays of weapons in the street or in schools. Some even try to clear their land of the ERW with rakes or by hand.” The results, too often, are disastrous.
Our teams and partners work directly with schools, businesses, authorities and other organizations. In Libya, approximately 45,000 people have attended risk education sessions, including at least 20,000 children, who tend to be the primary victims. In Misrata, for example, which is in northwestern Libya, a third of accidents involve children under the age of 14, and nearly 80 percent of recorded victims of these explosives are civilians under the age of 23.
We get the word out by distributing leaflets, through public service announcements on popular radio stations, and by mounting roadside billboards at checkpoints in the port city of Benghazi, the second largest town in the country.
To date, we’ve distributed tens of thousands of risk education leaflets about mines and ERW to vulnerable communities, and have displayed upwards of 5,000 posters in towns and cities contaminated by these weapons.
We’ve made a special effort to reach children by widely distributing textbooks, primarily during risk-education sessions in schools. The books feature simple images that are easy to understand, and demonstrate basic safety precautions to follow if a child comes across an ERW. We also use games and a song to get the message across. The latter, broadcast on radio stations, has become a national hit.
Clearing Contaminated Land
Recently, Frederic Gras and his team faced a formidable task in the suburbs of Tripoli: to neutralize several anti-aircraft missiles that could have caused considerable damage had they been fired.
“It is our duty to destroy them immediately,” says Gras, who manages our landmine and ERW clearance operations team in the capital city. “There are countless unexploded and abandoned devices in Libya, which means we’ve probably still got months of work ahead.”
Moving, dismantling and deactivating a missile, such as the ones Gras and his team have found, is meticulous work that can take two to three hours per item.
Last fall, we sent a de-mining specialist to Libya to assess local needs by identifying zones that are contaminated by anti-personnel mines and other ERW. The specialist has worked in conjunction with the authorities, including the National Transitional Council, the Joint Mine Action Coordination Team, the United Nations and other humanitarian operators in the field.
Following their assessment, teams were dispatched within Tripoli and Sirte, which is halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi on the south coast. Both sites have a team composed of a trauma medic and an expatriate staff member who manages and trains Libyans to identify and destroy mines and explosives throughout the country.
To date, Gras says, Handicap International has identified more than 2,000 ERW that pose danger to civilians in Tripoli, which is not only the capital, but also Libya’s largest city.
Along with our risk-education and clearance operations in former Libyan conflict zones, we are working to teach civilians about the dangers posed by small arms, such as revolvers, machine guns and assault rifles.
When the conflict began, Gaddafi’s forces opened arms stockpiles, which were bolstered by weapons supplied from other governments. This led to the proliferation of an unknown quantity of small arms, many of which are now in the possession of civilians who don’t know how to use them. This, of course, leads to accidents.
Masouda Masoud, 48, was washing dishes in her garden last July when she felt something hot hit her abdomen. When she called out for help, her daughter came running and found a bullet wedged inside Masouda’s dress that caused burns and skin wounds. The bullet had been fired from a gun during a celebratory shooting.
In October 2011, the month that Gaddafi was killed, another celebratory shooting in Benghazi scattered stray bullets, injuring more than 60 people over five days, while in Tripoli, hundreds of people were killed in accidents involving small arms and light weapons last fall, according to data collected by the United Nations.
Similar to the mine- and ERW risk-education efforts, we have been organizing prevention sessions to teach people about basic safety precautions. Among these are workshops targeted at the group most affected—teenagers. More than 1,300 teenagers in universities in Benghazi have been taught about the risks of misusing weapons.
In addition, we’ve trained a number of teachers about best practices regarding weapons, and they are passing the information on to students and parents. We’ve distributed risk-education kits in schools, along with thousands of leaflets and posters to children who are endangered by the presence of small arms and light weapons.
Messages about the threat of small arms were also displayed on billboards in Benghazi, on heavily trafficked roads and in poor neighborhoods, where many civilians possess small arms.
The organization is extending its small-arms risk-education activities to Tripoli, one of the cities most severely affected by this new brand of violence, and the topic of small arms will be included in risk-education sessions on the dangers of ERW in other Libyan cities in 2012. Further, we are raising awareness among various local organizations that act as focal points for the campaign.
Protecting civilians is a top priority. In fact, we were founded by two French doctors in Thailand in 1982 as a response to landmine injuries suffered by Cambodian people living in refugee camps. There, we set up orthopedic centers to provide immediate, effective and practical orthotic devices using locally available equipment.
Today, we work with local partners in more than 60 countries to develop programs in health and rehabilitation, and social and economic integration. We respond to natural and civil disasters in order to limit serious and permanent injuries, and to assist survivors with recovery and reintegration.
In 1992, we played a key role in establishing the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and then gathered 123 countries’ signatures for the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibited the deployment, stockpiling, production and sale of anti-personnel mines, and also made sure that those seized were destroyed. To date, 159 countries have become States Parties to the Treaty, and we are urging Libya to join the Mine Ban Treaty, as well.
Since the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into effect last August, Libya represents 50 percent of the new cluster munitions use, according to the 2011 Cluster Munitions Monitor.
Our efforts to reduce armed violence, through education and through intervention, can make communities safer and prevent people from acquiring disabilities.
We will continue to educate civilians about the dangers posed by ERW, small weapons and light arms, while working to clear contaminated areas until mid-2012. At that point we will reassess the needs of the civilian population and consider whether we’re still needed in that country.
Libya, like several of the countries where we operate, is in a post-conflict state, and the environment is at times difficult and unstable. After the upcoming national elections, we will be watching to see how the country evolves, and what the new government’s position on landmines and ERW will be.
Mansour Hamid, 37, who supervises a team of explosive ordnance clearance officers in Tripoli, has cleared 20 sites but says there’s still a long road yet ahead.
by Frederic Maio
Maio is manager of Handicap International’s operations in Libya. The organization was founded in 1982 to improve the lives of people in post-conflict or low-income countries around the world, enabling them to overcome disabling situations and reclaim their independence. Since then, it has grown to include eight national associations based in Europe (with headquarters in Lyon, France), Canada and the United States. The organization was a co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.