Since returning to Lebanon last Saturday, I have received several reminders about personal safety. The US Embassy in Damascus sent me a copy of the November 23 Public Announcement: Lebanon, which warned Americans to “maintain a low profile in public and avoid predictable or habitual behavior”. Well, I’ve been predictably irritated at the US Embassy in Lebanon for maintaining its habitual failure to pass any of its public announcements, warnings or warden messages on to me … but since I haven’t rung up Awkar to see why, despite all my efforts, this is so, I think that at least I am keeping a low profile.
Meanwhile I received an email at work reminding me to carry both my work ID and my passport at all times. Like France, Lebanon requires every person to carry government-issued IDs at all times – but it does not require people to carry their work IDs as well. I’m sure the fine I might face for being caught without my ID would be annoying, but … I suspect the timing and the double-ID suggestion had more to do with the current political situation than with HR’s concern for my financial well-being.
This evening, I read an article written by Lieutenant Commander Trevor Leslie, a member of the New Zealand military team working to disarm the cluster bombs still littering south Lebanon. He and his team have chosen to put their own safety at risk in order to make life safer for the people of the south – a much more serious, and more noble, jeopardy than I ever face, ID or no.
“Stay safe” is the most common expression I’ve heard since arriving in Lebanon and are the last words spoken by Hani, our locally employed medic, prior to donning Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to conduct a Render Safe Procedure (RSP) on sub-munitions found in the contaminated sites dotted around this beautiful ancient country.
My cell-phone has that same message on its screen and those are the last words uttered between the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technicians from various agencies prior to loading up with explosives from the Chinese Battalion (CHINBAT) each morning. These words act as a daily reminder of the hazards of life in Lebanon.
Since the 34 day war concluded on 14 August 2006, cluster bombs have claimed the lives of approximately 30 – 40 locals and international workers and approximately 180 more have been maimed or disfigured.
A few hours before boarding the plane from New Zealand I was informed of the latest fatality – a British EOD operator working on a site next to ours near the Israeli border. Because of this accident that site is currently suspended, however us Kiwi’s will be opening it back up very soon to continue the clearance.
The Army Engineers and a Navy Diver have systematically searched lanes on land portioned into 50m x 50m tape lined boxes. My hat goes off to these boys many just past the age of 20.
Without a second thought they head the assault into un-cleared land with their metal detectors, camelbacks and a healthy dose of kiwi humour to cut into the monotony of 7 hours of solid searching daily. After 5 months and more than 120,000 square metres of searched land behind them I can see the job has worn them down but their conversation belies it, and laughter comes as easily as it did during the first few weeks.
The second Leading Diver is conducting the daily EOD and Demolitions checks, thankful for the respite from searching and anxious to initiate the firing sequence and hear the crack of another high order detonation, a pleasing sound to us all as it signifies a productive and safe end to another day of Battle Area Clearance and EOD for our team.
As you can imagine a lot enters my mind when making the lonely walk to ‘no mans land’ to RSP these sub-munitions. With the idle banter fading rapidly and the CP (Control Point) safely behind me I can now clearly see the sets of 3 marking pegs surrounding each individual sub-munitions.
All applicable safeties flash briefly in my mind and I check then recheck them to confirm all is well. Approach angle safe in accordance with the Jet hazard threat posed by the shape charge in each of the dual purpose munitions. A final check of PPE and clothing…A quick karakia….deep breath …sweet ….let’s roll.
Each RSP is conducted methodically, following the same basic procedures unfortunately as each cluster bomb has impacted differently each manual RSP can differ slightly and on several occasions the option to Blow in Place (BIP) is chosen as a safety measure noting the degraded nature and dangerous configuration of some sub-munitions. Once all items have been rendered safe with locations marked by GPS a final visual of the area is conducted before heading back to the CP where preparation is underway to detonate the days haul.
As an interesting contradiction explosives are commonly used to destroy explosive devices and this technique has been utilised effectively by EOD Operators for decades. However, in areas that cannot withstand a high order (eg. Queen St) a variety of other explosive and non-explosive techniques and tools are available to EOD Operators to render safe ordnance for removal and subsequent disposal.
Once all items have been successfully destroyed and the site is closed down then comes what I would term the most dangerous part of every day … the drive home. The nerves get worn down when dealing with roads in disrepair, no apparent driving rules and arrogant drivers who are oblivious to others. Thankfully I have spent the last 19 years in Auckland so am used to this traffic bedlam.
At time of writing, after 5 days of searching in November 07, 104 sub-munitions were located, rendered safe and moved for demolition. In total the NZDF Battle Area Clearance (BAC) Team has located, rendered safe and destroyed over 1700 sub-munitions since arriving in theatre in Feb 2007.
Here in Lebanon the weather is deteriorating as winter approaches. The days are shorter and darker. The sub munitions on the ground are mostly buried or partially buried and due to environmental exposure have become quite unstable and dangerous. The guys in-theatre experience, training and heightened vigilance more than mitigate the additional threat and I can safely state that all of the team are ready for the challenges the final quarter of the deployment has to offer.
We look forward to seeing you all early in 2008.