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Demining in the south – playing the long game

Belgian UNIFIL peacekeepers demonstrate their mines clearing skills in south Lebanon, Monday, June 9, 2014. (The Daily Star/Elise Knusten)

TIRI/HOULA, Lebanon: The Belgian soldiers didn’t even flinch when the mines exploded meters behind them, sending a plume of dust and smoke into the sky.

“We’re used to it,” Lt. Steven Roels said with a good-natured shrug.

For the past four months, Roels and a platoon of Belgian soldiers in UNIFIL have worked six days a week clearing mines along the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the blasts have slowly become routine inflections in their daily rhythm.

In two weeks, however, Roels and the rest of the battalion will hang up their trademark blue helmets and head home.

Some, such Chief Warrant Officer Karim Benaouda, yearn to return to their families.

“My son, he’s one year and four months. Since last week, he’s been walking,” gushed Benaouda, the sound of Israeli earth movers echoing in the distance behind him.

Others crave simple home pleasures. “Spaghetti. Homemade spaghetti,” Pfc. Karel De Carne said.

But while the soldiers speak eagerly about watching their country compete in the World Cup and plans for their forthcoming leave, they discuss the success of their four-month demining mission in south Lebanon with modest reserve.

Some 23 Belgium battalions have served in Lebanon since 2006, and none had been able to clear more than 61 mines along the Blue Line during a single deployment.

As the plume of disturbed earth settled once again along the Lebanon-Israeli border, the current Belgian battalion marked, without emotion, their 89th safely exploded mine.

The goal of the Belgian battalion’s mission with the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, explained detachment commander Maj. Patrick Eysermans, is to secure corridors for the Lebanese Armed Forces to access points along the Blue Line, the border between Lebanon and Israel established by the U.N. in 2000.

No formal, mutually accepted border existed between the two countries, so to confirm the limit of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, U.N. cartographers and military experts created the so-called Blue Line.

“The Blue Line was drawn on a map, 1:50,000 [scale], with a pencil of 0.08 centimeters,” the Belgian battalion’s commander explained.

But while both Israel and Lebanon agreed, if informally, to the new border, the width of the pencil has since proved problematic.

That 0.08 cm corresponds to approximately 40 meters on the ground, territory that neither Israel nor Lebanon are willing to concede without a fight.

For years, UNIFIL soldiers have been marking the Blue Line by erecting barrels at precise geographic points agreed upon by Lebanon, Israel and UNIFIL following extensive and often acrimonious discussions. The two countries often bicker for months over centimeters of inhospitable land.

Even once an agreement has been reached, however, the points often lie in the middle of Israeli minefields and are effectively unreachable from the Lebanese side. The mines, according to Eysermans, were all laid by Israel in the early ’80s soon after the country invaded Lebanon.

So, meter by meter, Belgian, Cambodian and Chinese troops have been clearing pathways through the land so the Blue Line can be clearly demarcated. Other battalions are involved in the demining process, but only these contingents from these three countries establish the access corridors.

Advancing inch by inch, soldiers use a mine detector to find each unexploded ordnance and, on all fours, measure their progress with a meter-stick. It can take months to demine a single corridor.

Point B 75-1 is situated on a steep incline below the sleepy Lebanese border towns of Houla and Markaba. Smoking nargileh on untiled terraces, locals tend to pay little attention to UNIFIL vehicles as they pass through the rough streets.

Aside from the occasional Israeli military surveillance team snapping pictures of their work from across the fence, members of the demining team say interlopers are rare.

The pervading provincial quiet could almost be called peaceful, if it were not interrupted by the sound of exploding mines.

Clad in heavy antimine gear – which consists of a plastic visor and a heavy baby-blue leaded apron that covers the torso and upper legs – the soldiers spend long hours in the brush under the unsympathetic sun.

Some of the mines are visible to the naked eye. Ageing, unexploded ordnance lie half-covered in soil just meters away from the cordon delineating the pathway cleared by the Belgian soldiers.

Before a mine is exploded, soldiers require permission from UNIFIL central command, the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israeli Army, the last of which, according to platoon commander Roels, has proved less than cooperative at times.

“For the guys at [the Israeli army] it’s a game. They don’t care if we have to wait five hours,” before we get permission to detonate, he said.

The current detachment has suffered no casualties clearing mines, but the potential for serious injury or worse remains a real danger.

According to the Lebanese Mine Action Center, more than 3,600 Lebanese were killed or injured by land mines between 1975 and 2012. Just this spring, a Lebanese man was killed while aiding a Norwegian demining operation in the south.

Not far from the worksite, an austere concrete monument pays tribute to the memory of a Belgian soldier who perished in 2008 after a demining accident.

Despite the dangers, however, several soldiers said that they had enjoyed their deployment and hoped to return.

“I hope that I’ll be back here next year with another platoon, that would be awesome,” said 25-year-old Pfc. Kenny Van Linden, who exploded his first mine while here.

“I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve improved in my work,” said 31-year-old Karel de Carne, who added that he would return to Lebanon “in an instant” if given the chance.

At the main Belgian Camp in Tiri, a flyer pasted on the window of the camp’s bar, where soldiers can enjoy up to two alcoholic drinks a day before last call at 10:30 p.m., advertises a farewell party.

Board games, books and DVDs loaned from the camp’s games room are being returned for the next Belgian detachment.

Some members of the battalion, like Benaouda, have lofty hopes for the region. “I hope that soon there will be peace,” he said.

But with little indication that Lebanon and Israel will reconcile their positions, however, others such as Sgt. Lesley Peeters see a narrower path. “I just hope they can agree on the next point.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 13, 2014, on page 3.

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