Between 2014 and 2017, violent extremist groups operating in Syria, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, occupied small swaths of remote terrain in the Arsal municipality on the Lebanon side of the Lebanon-Syria border. These terrorists laid defensive minefields around their hilltop positions; in addition, they mined and booby-trapped approaches to their positions in an attempt to block attacks from the Lebanon Armed Forces (LAF). In 2017, the LAF successfully retook this territory, killing or capturing hundreds of extremist fighters and returning this fertile land back to the Lebanese citizens who the extremists had expelled from their homes and farms.
While the extremists who once occupied this territory are gone, their deadly legacy remains in the form of landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). Local farmers flocked back to the area after the LAF liberated it to find that extremists chopped down their apple and cherry trees for firewood and looted their homes. Eager to restore their livelihood, these farmers began replanting fruit trees and other crops, unaware their farmland was now contaminated with deadly explosive hazards. These explosive hazards have killed 6 civilians and injured 17 more since 2017, perpetuating the extremists’ reign of terror and preventing displaced residents from rebuilding their lives safely.
In July 2018, the U.S. Department of State, in close coordination with the LAF’s Lebanon Mine Action Center (LMAC), issued a grant to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to assess ERW contamination around Arsal and to deploy demining teams to begin clearing the explosive hazards identified during the survey. The goal of the assessment was to identify the full scope of ERW contamination in the area occupied by extremists and work with the LAF to develop an operational plan for addressing this contamination. MAG’s extensive experience clearing ISIS-placed ERW in Iraq and Syria, as well as their close working relationship with the LMAC, enabled them to begin the assessment in July 2018.
During the assessment, MAG identified a wide range of explosive hazards including IEDs similar to those used by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, unexploded cluster munitions from Syrian government airstrikes, traditional anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines, and even IEDs made out of rubber tires extremists rolled down hills in an attempt to block or disrupt the LAF. Following the assessment, and with the support of the U.S. Department of State, MAG and their partner organization Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) recruited, trained, and deployed several teams of Lebanese nationals in October 2018 to begin the methodical and dangerous process of clearing these explosive hazards.
Zahraa Mostafa is one of these brave deminers who puts her life on the line day after day to make Arsal a safer place. After completing a degree in Laboratory Sciences, Zahraa worked several jobs; however, none provided her the income required for her to help support her aging father. When she saw the online advertisement that announced MAG was hiring deminers, she knew this was an opportunity to earn a good salary while also doing her part to make Lebanon a safer place.
The work was difficult at first; however, it became easier with practice and she is now thriving in her role with MAG, according to Zahraa. Working as a deminer made her more confident, and she feels society views her differently since she took on this challenging work. Zahraa recently noted after working with MAG for over a year she “is more sure than ever that every woman can do any job if she sets her mind to it.”
Zahraa and her MAG and NPA colleagues cleared more than 17 explosive hazards since 2018 and hope to clear Arsal of all explosive hazards by 2023. Due to the courageous and lifesaving work of Zahraa and her teammates, local residents of Arsal can safely return to their homes, farm their land, and live their lives safe from the threat of explosive hazards.
Ali Al Haloush and his wife Om Mahmoud live in Jroud Ras Baalbak, a mountainous area located near the Lebanon-Syria border. Agriculture is their main source of income and cherries from this region are regarded as some of the best in the country. In August 2014, ISIS attacked the area and occupied it for three years, displacing residents, destroying the local agriculture economy, and forcing farmers like Ali and Om Mahmoud to seek new sources of income. After returning to their farm in 2017, Ali and Om Mahmoud found ISIS had seeded their land with explosive hazards. With the support of the U.S. Department of State, teams from MAG surveyed and cleared Ali and Om Mahmoud’s land, enabling the couple to safely access their farm and begin to rebuild their lives safe from the threat of buried ISIS bombs. After MAG finished clearing their land, Om Mahmoud said, “I feel safe again to work and rebuild. The main thing I am thankful for is that I am able to see my grandchildren playing in the area with no danger surrounding them.”
Following an early investment from the United States that enabled MAG to conduct the initial contamination assessment, other international donors, including the EU and the government of The Netherlands, are now also supporting MAG and NPA’s important work in Arsal. This synchronized approach to burden sharing is enabling the NGOs to field more demining teams and conduct their lifesaving work faster and more efficiently. Through smart investments in organizations like MAG, the United States is strengthening regional security and stability while enabling economic development across Lebanon in partnership with our close allies in the LAF. The United States is proud to support this lifesaving work and looks forward to 2023 when the people of Arsal can live their lives free from the threat of buried bombs.
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About the Author: Mr. Solomon Black serves as the Program Manager for Lebanon, Yemen, Emergency Response, and Analysis & Assessments in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. Department of State.