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Fatalities in Serbia

7 Aug

All eyes are on the Olympics at the moment, but beyond the madness of London, cluster munitions are still executing their dirty deed with gusto. In Serbia last week, two soldiers were killed during a clearance operation along the border with Kosovo. According to the Serbian defense ministry, the soldiers died after a cluster bomb exploded as they cleared a mine field near their barracks on Mount Kopaonik in southern Serbia. The cluster bomb was from NATO’s bombing campaign during the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict.

Serbian cluster bomb survivor and campaigner against the weapon, Branislav Kapetanovic, said the deaths highlighted how “absurd” it was that Serbia had still not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a landmark treaty which bans the stockpiling, use, transfer and production of cluster munitions. It sets strict deadlines for land clearance and stockpile destruction and requires victims be given assistance.

In comments carried on the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) website, Branislav said: “This tragedy demands urgent action. It is absurd that after all these years Serbia still hasn’t joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. We cannot allow new casualties from this weapon. Every unexploded cluster bomb can cause an accident, every cluster bomb stored can be used some day. Only by destroying them and banning them entirely [can] we prevent future suffering”.

Despite having around 15 square kilometres of cluster munition contaminated land, Serbia has not signed the Convention on Cluster Munition, and according to the CMC, maintains a stockpile of the weapon.

Figures of mine and explosive remnants of war casualties in Serbia are not available. The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reports that in 2004, 1,360 casualties (24 killed; 1336 injured) were reported between 1992 and 2000 by Serbia and Montenegro.

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Photographer blown up by landmine in Afghanistan planning a trip back

26 Mar

A few months ago the Guardian published a fascinating article on Giles Duley, a British photojournalist who was left a triple amputee after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan. Duley says he intends to return to Afghanistan to finish the story the landmine prevented him from finishing. His sense of humour, love for his girlfriend and ambition shine through the article and, I hope, will inspire others to go after their goals, however impossible they may seem. Duley is a talented photographer and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Click here for Duley’s website, and here to help fund Duley’s trip back to Afghanistan.

In Memory of A Demining Hero

12 Mar

Kaido Keerdo in Dafniyah preparing munitions for destruction last month (Photo: Marcus Rhinelander)

According to the Libya Herald, an Estonian deminer was killed earlier this month by a cluster munition.

The newspaper said: “Kaido Keerdo, 31, was a veteran of the Estonian Army’s Explosives Ordnance Disposal unit and had trained in Kenya and worked in South Sudan before coming to Libya. He was working with the charity Danish Church Aid (DCA) when he died.” He was reportedly killed by a “Type 84″ anti-tank mine, a Chinese cluster munition that that seriously wounded two other de-miners working in the same area last year.

Keerdo and many other brave women and men risk their lives every day to try and eradicate cluster munitions and other repugnant explosive remnants of war. They get up every morning to go out to risky areas so that the rest of us may be safe from harm. Sadly, many die in their efforts, killed by indiscriminate and inhumane weapons of war. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you Keerdo for his selfless work and offer my heartfelt condolences to his family and every other family who has been affected by cluster munitions. Keerdo and his colleagues died doing the most noble work there is:  protecting others. May he rest in peace and may the world one day be free from cluster munitions.

Cluster Bombs: The weapon that keeps on killing

12 Sep

By Dalila Mahdawi

A deminer with MAG searches for buried cluster munitions in Kfar Joz village in South Lebanon. Credit: Dalila Mahdawi/IPS.

KFAR JOZ, South Lebanon, Sep 12, 2011 (IPS) – Even in the summer heat, the hills of South Lebanon are an impressive sight – a patchwork of green, brown and red fields interrupted only by sleepy villages, rock formations and dirt tracks.

Most residents here have traditionally depended on agriculture to provide for their families. But instead of sowing crops or herding their flocks through the grassy terrain, for the last five years locals have viewed the surrounding hills with caution. Lurking in these fields are hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions, silently waiting to claim their next victim.

“Every day we find cluster bombs in between the houses and in the fields,” says Ali Shuaib, community liaison manager at the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental organisation clearing landmines and other remnants of war in Lebanon. “There are tens of villages like this all over the South.”

Although Lebanon has been plagued by landmines since its 1975-1990 civil war and subsequent Israeli occupation, it faced unprecedented contamination levels from cluster munitions after Israel launched a 34-day war in July 2006. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel’s use of the weapons was the most extensive anywhere in the world since the 1991 Gulf War.

In the last 72 hours of fighting, at a time when the United Nations Security Council had adopted Resolution 1701 calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, Israel dropped more than four million cluster bombs over South Lebanon. Of those, at least forty percent failed to explode upon impact, according to the UN, becoming de facto landmines across Lebanon’s agricultural heartland.

These are the most indiscriminate weapons of modern warfare; 95 percent of all victims of cluster munitions are civilians, according to the NGO Handicap International. Since the cessation of hostilities five years ago, 408 Lebanese civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munitions, 115 of them under 18 years old. Unless properly disposed of, the weapons keep killing and maiming for decades.

Cluster munitions continue to wreak havoc on the Lebanese economy, too. With an estimated 36 percent of contaminated land being used for agricultural purposes, the already deprived South Lebanon has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in income, says Major Pierre Bou Maroun, chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ Regional Mine Action Centre in Nabatieh, which oversees all demining operations in the country. In 2007 alone, Lebanon lost an estimated 126.8 million dollars in agricultural revenue because of cluster munitions.

Israel’s use of the weapon in Lebanon helped galvanise an international ban in May 2007, when 107 countries voted for the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of all forms of cluster munitions. It also requires countries to clear contaminated areas within 10 years, destroy supplies within eight years and provide assistance to victims.

Lebanon was among the first countries to sign the convention in December 2008 and although it only entered into force in May this year, officials have been keen to take an international leadership role on its implementation. This week Beirut hosts the second international meeting of states parties to the Convention. Delegates from over 110 governments, UN and other international organisations will attend the week-long conference along with survivors of cluster munitions to discuss how to further advance the Convention’s obligations.

The meeting “is a golden opportunity for Lebanon,” says Haboubba Aoun, one of Lebanon’s representative members of the Cluster Munition Coalition and International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and a member of Lebanon’s National Committees on Risk Education and Victim Assistance. “We hope the people of the world will take a closer look at the cluster bomb problem in Lebanon and decide to continue supporting clearance activities and victim assistance activities.”

Clearance teams have made formidable progress in Lebanon despite almost continuous funding concerns. “We have 2,259 well-known minefields” in addition to thousands of other contaminated areas, says Bou Maroun. Some 1,578 minefields have been now been cleared and returned to residents, but 22 million square metres of contaminated land remains. This figure does not include heavily contaminated areas along the so-called Blue Line border area between Lebanon and Israel, whose clearance has been left to the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

“Our vision is a Lebanon free from cluster bombs, land mines and explosive remnants of war,” Bou Maroun tells IPS. With sufficient funding and support, he says Lebanon could be cleared of cluster munitions by 2016. Following international pressure, Israel provided the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with maps showing the areas it targeted with cluster munitions. But, says Bou Maroun, as these maps do not show the coordinates of those targets, they are merely “papers for the trash”.

Mine clearance is painstakingly slow and dangerous work. Deminers sent to the field must abide by strict regulations and are flanked by ambulance and medics. “It’s a calculated risk,” says Daniel Redelinghuys, MAG’s Technical Operations Manager. Two MAG deminers have lost their lives and 18 have been injured in the five years since hostilities ceased, he adds. The LAF and other clearance organisations have also experienced considerable losses.

Yet the possibility of an accident doesn’t deter Hussein Tabaja, a mine clearance site supervisor with MAG. “You’re working for your country,” he says with a shrug. “When you see the faces of people after you have cleared their land, you see how many people you have helped, who can go back and use their fields again, it makes you happy. Sometimes during the holidays I actually miss coming to work.”

While there is growing international support for a universal ban, there remains staunch opposition from the world’s biggest producers, traders or users of cluster munitions, such as Israel, China and the U.S., who have not signed the Convention. As recently as late August, Handicap International censured Israel for laying fresh landmines along the border of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

And for many, any international ban will come too late. “I wish I could change my leg and get a new one,” says 12-year-old Mohammad Abd al-Aal, who has been left with a prosthetic leg after stepping on a cluster bomblet while herding his family’s goats. (END)

Becoming the world’s first human camera

8 Feb

What a headache: Bilal's camera implant (Image copyright 3rdi)

Dalila Mahdawi

NEW YORK, 7 Feb (IPS) – Wafaa Bilal hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about two months. After becoming the first person to have a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head, the Iraqi- American artist is learning the hard way just how much of a headache modern technology can be.

“It’s still painful,” he tells IPS, pointing to the three titanium bolts that have been inserted into his cranium to hold the camera in place.

Bilal undertook the dramatic operation as part of a year- long project entitled 3rdi. The camera takes photographs every minute of the view behind Bilal’s head. The images, comprising everything from uninspiring shots of his kitchen cupboards to unnerving angles of objects and passers-by, are then uploaded onto the 3rdi website and streamed to Qatar’s newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, Mathaf.

3rdi is, in many ways, a reflection of Bilal’s own traumatic experiences of loss. Having been raised in a conservative family under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, the soft- spoken artist was forced to flee during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait after publicly rejecting his conscription into the army. He spent two years living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert before being granted asylum in the United States.

“It was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” recalls Bilal, who is also an assistant professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts. In the camp, “We were subjected to very harsh treatment by Saudi soldiers and many people lost their lives. Art became a way to remind myself I was still alive.”

With little to remind him of the places and faces he had to abandon so abruptly, 3rdi has become Bilal’s way of recording chaotic, poignant and yet often banal moments of departure. “Individually, they might not look significant,” he says of the images, but when taken together, they form “quite a nice mosaic of someone’s life.”

Since unveiling the project, 3rdi has evolved to speak about many other aspects of modern life, such as government surveillance of its citizens (the camera tracks Bilal’s whereabouts via GPS) and the aggressive intrusion of technology.

“There is no such thing as a private life anymore,” says Bilal. “Instead of creating something to serve us, these machines have enslaved us.”

Although the camera’s physical presence leaves the artist susceptible to infection and sleepless nights, he insists the pain is an integral part of the 3rdi project. “Performance is about endurance,” he explains. “It’s a physical reminder of what you are doing.”

It’s not the first time Bilal has used his own body as his canvas. Physical intervention has been a central, and often controversial, feature of much of his work.

In 2010, Bilal held a 24-hour performance in which he had the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back. More than 100,000 dots marking Iraqi casualties were also tattooed on with invisible ink, symbolising the anonymous victims of a war that most Americans feel so far removed from. Bilal also has plans to tattoo on some 5,000 dots in homage to the U.S. soldiers also killed in the U.S.-led war.

For an earlier project, called “Shoot an Iraqi/Domestic Tension”, Bilal confined himself in a prison-like cell for 30 days and was subjected to the whims of his audience, who could shoot a remote-controlled paintball gun at him from the internet or gallery. Following newspaper articles about the project, hackers infiltrated the software and programmed the gun to shoot at Bilal once every minute.

“The hope is you build a platform not to engage those already engaged in political dialogue,” but to attract those who typically shy away, he says. It seemed he succeeded in that attempt: by the end of the exhibition, over 65,000 people from more than 130 countries had fired at Bilal.

His work became more overtly political following the killing of his younger brother by a U.S. drone missile in Iraq in 2004. Bilal says he wanted to bring people living in “the comfort zone” into the realm of the “conflict zone”, Iraq.

With that goal in mind, the artist has also subjected himself to water boarding, the simulated-drowning torture technique former U.S. president George W. Bush notoriously admitted to using in Iraq.

“My work is driven from within as a concerned person, as someone who has been directly affected by his surroundings,” Bilal says. “My job has to become a mirror to reflect that social condition.”

It may be another 10 months before Bilal can enjoy a proper night’s rest again, but if having eyes at the back of his head has taught the artist anything, it is to savour the present more.

“Most of the time we don’t exist in the present, and I think in the process we fail to exist in the place we are in,” he says. “I think this is a call to slow down, look at these corners of our lives and live in the moment we are in.”

3rdi is online until December 2011.

http://www.3rdi.me/ and http://wafaabilal.com/

Eyes on the back of his head (Image copyright 3rdi)

Flotilla killings: Enough violence and enough hate

3 Jul

(It’s been about a month now since Israel invaded and attacked a boat full of peace activists bound for Gaza. The issue has pretty much slipped off the media radar and the appalling siege on Gaza and occupation of Palestinian land continue. Here is a piece I wrote at the time, published by Common Ground News Service, where I tried to harness my emotions in a positive way. Decades of hate and violence have got the Palestinians and Israelis absolutely nowhere. I’m sick of it, I’m tired, I want peace and dialogue. And I want it now.)

by Dalila Mahdawi

08 June 2010

Beirut – The tragic bloodshed aboard the MV Mavi Marmara aid ship has, justifiably, provoked criticism about Israel’s use of force against civilian populations. It has also, if somewhat tardily, refocused the international community’s attention on the need for an immediate end to the siege on Gaza.

Louise Arbor, President of the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, was quoted in The Independent as saying: “It is easy to condemn Israel’s attack on a flotilla of aid bound for Gaza as unnecessary, ill-conceived and disproportionate. What is harder to do – but what must now be done – is understand how this incident is an indictment of a much broader policy toward Gaza for which the wider international community bears responsibility.” Arbor’s argument, however, doesn’t go far enough in recognising that the latest bloodshed is also an indictment of the international community’s failure to prioritise and pursue a just peace process.

Lifting the blockade on Gaza’s 1.8 million residents is a much required step, as is a full and independent investigation into what occurred on the flotilla, but both are only part and parcel of the more urgent need to end a 62-year-old conflict.

What is required now, just when it seems least likely, is the immediate resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Rather than serve as another opportunity to exchange fiery political rhetoric and further entrench divisions between two already polarised communities, let the deaths of those aboard the Mavi Marmara provide the impetus needed to persuade both Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table once and for all.

Unfortunately, however, reactions to the flotilla killings from international power brokers like the United States, Canada and Great Britain suggest little change to the status quo. Watered-down comments, such as Ottawa and Washington’s expressions of “deep regret”, are counterproductive and suggest an unwillingness to make any definitive statement on moving the peace process forward. Even the United Nations has only condemned in nebulous terms the “acts” aboard the flotilla and urged an investigation “conforming to international standards.”

Few countries have mentioned the need for constructive dialogue and as emotions run high, it is possible indirect peace talks launched just a few weeks ago will stall. But as French President Nicolas Sarkozy noted a few days ago: “Lasting peace and security in the region can be achieved only through peaceful dialogue and not through use of force.”

Western and Arab nations have remained largely silent throughout decades of appalling violence and suffering, but they must now find their voices. They are not only complicit in Monday’s tragedy, but also in the failure to achieve peace. The road towards a lasting and just peace, as countless failed negotiations testify, is one fraught with obstacles. But the difficulties can and must be overcome.

Violence and finger-pointing is unsustainable – only a decisive agreement will protect the rights of the Palestinians and provide assurances to the Israelis. The two sides must accept the inevitability of peace and coexistence, and the international community must help them achieve that.

The United States, Israel’s closest friend, has the biggest role to play in coaxing along negotiations. When US President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world in Cairo last year and pledged to seek a new era in relations, he was lauded by the Palestinians as setting the tone for a more balanced American policy in the Middle East. Now is the time for him to seize the opportunity and live up to his words.

If anything is to be gained from the flotilla deaths and injuries, it is that they will symbolise a critical moment in reigniting peace-building efforts. If the opportunity for a peace settlement is squandered, it is inevitable that such bloody confrontations will only continue. Let us hope that international outrage at such senseless and avoidable violence will push the world into demanding an end to the bloodshed and hatred that led to it in the first place, working alongside both Palestinians and Israelis for a sustainable, constructive solution.

Something amiss? Lebanon’s amnesia for those missing since the civil war

2 May
Dalila Mahdawi
BBC News, Lebanon

The people who went missing during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s are in danger of being forgotten as their parents and siblings grow older. One mother I knew died without ever discovering what happened to her children.

Audette Salem was just one woman whose loved ones disappeared in Lebanon’s civil war.

Some 17,000 people vanished during the bloody conflict, most – it is thought – abducted and killed by militias. But some believe a few hundred may still be alive in Syrian jails.

Audette outside the tent in Beirut she lived for five years
Audette with photographs of those who disappeared, displayed on her tent

I first met Audette in a tent outside the United Nations headquarters in Beirut.

She, along with other families of the missing, had set up home there to demand an investigation into their disappearance.

A 77-year-old woman with a small frame and a resigned look on her face, Audette quietly told me about the day her son and daughter disappeared.

‘Stop looking’

It was 1985, and 19-year-old Marie-Christine and 22-year-old Richard were driving home for lunch with their elderly uncle George.

Somewhere along the way they were kidnapped.

At home, Audette waited for them to arrive – for hours – anxiously looking out of the window for signs of their orange Volkswagen.

When it dawned on her what might have happened, she went to the militia leaders, risking her own life to glean what information she could.

Invariably, Audette told me, the men would tell her they didn’t know anything.

She never saw or heard from her family again.

Audette would tidy her children’s bedrooms as though they might reappear that very evening

Five years later, when the war ended, Audette again visited the militia leaders, who had, by then, become government officials.

She said they cold-heartedly told her to stop looking and move on.

With the passing of time, the chances that Richard, Marie-Christine and George were still alive diminished.

Yet Audette refused to give up hope – it was all she had left.

She would tidy her children’s bedrooms as though they might reappear that very evening.

She rearranged Richard’s guitars, cigarettes and razors, and dusted Marie-Christine’s bed and make-up.

War amnesia

Audette was interviewed three times by a commission established by the government to look into the disappearances.

But she felt the commission let her down – it never published its findings and did little, she claimed, to investigate the hundreds of mass graves dotted around the country.

Shortly after the war ended, the Lebanese government passed an amnesty law protecting militia members from being prosecuted for war crimes. It also effectively snuffed out any hopes of a real debate about the bloodshed.

Indeed, it seems the war amnesia is no accident. Since I first came to Lebanon 10 years ago, I’ve seen traces of the conflict almost completely wiped away.

Back then, I was stunned by all the bullet-riddled buildings. Now, I’m shocked by how few of those buildings are left to remind people of the war.

West Beirut's Manara seafront promenade
Beirut’s Manara seafront is a holiday destination once again

It is almost as if it never happened.

There are no official war memorials or commemoration dates, and up until a few years ago, the site of an infamous massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps was a rubbish dump.

Because of the reluctance to stir up memories of the war, little has been done by the government to investigate the whereabouts of the missing.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said he will bring up the issue of the disappeared in talks with the Syrians, whose military were present in Lebanon soon after the start of the civil war and until just five years ago.

But many are sceptical anything significant will come out of it.

“Why,” people ask, “should the Lebanese expect the Syrians to tell them where their missing are, if the Lebanese themselves seem unable to answer that question?”

Too late

As some of my Lebanese friends tell me, the war may be over on paper, but in people’s minds it rages silently on.

Sectarian tensions, mostly between rival Christian and Muslim groups, are still very much a part of Lebanon’s social fabric.

Without a proper discussion of why the war happened and what occurred during the conflict, many believe Lebanon’s troubles will never truly go away.

Photos of Audette attached to the side of the protest tent outside the UN building
A memorial to Audette was attached to her protest tent shortly after her death

For people like Audette, any truth which is uncovered about the war will have come too late.

She lived in her protest tent for 1,495 days, giving up the comforts of a real home to brave hot summers and blustery winters in the company of others who had lost relatives.

But last May she was killed by a speeding car as she crossed the road near her tent.

At her funeral, held at the tent, more than 100 friends gathered to pay their last respects.

They also came to deliver a message to the government: Audette spent the last 25 years searching for news of her children and died no closer to finding it.

This spring, those friends are no doubt hoping Audette’s prayers will one day be answered.

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