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Nansen Award: The challenges and rewards of a Lebanese mine clearer

News Stories, 16 September 2008

© UNHCR/P.Taggart
Mine clearer Ali Hamzeh stands in a sector cleared of bomblets by his team in El Jabal, South Lebanon.

AITA AL JABAL, Lebanon, September 16 (UNHCR) Clearing mines or clusterbomb submunitions in southern Lebanon makes Hussam Hijaziya, or Sami as his colleagues call him, feel really good. "I destroyed 310 submunitions [spread by clusterbombs] this year. This means I saved the lives of 310 of my own people," he says, adding: "Each time I destroy a bomb, I feel I am a champion."

But Sami admits that he still gets nervous when going out on a mission for the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL), whose staff and deminers have won this year's prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for helping displaced Lebanese return home to their homes and land.

"We are dealing with bombs here after all," he notes, while adding: "This is not a game, but when I found my first bomb, I had a feeling I cannot describe."

When he's on duty, Sami leaves his home at six in the morning and heads to the southern Lebanese village of Aita Al Jabal, where he has been stationed since January 2007. From his control centre in an old deserted house, Sami keeps in radio touch with the three teams of mine clearers that he supervises.

The sappers, all civilians and mostly in their 20s, are looking for unexploded ordnance (UXO) especially bomblets distributed by Israeli-fired clusterbombs in 2006. They search in three areas fenced off by UNMACC-SL and marked as contaminated by clusterbomb submunitions.

"They marked a 44,000-square-metre area in Aita Al Jabal as contaminated. About 7,800 submunitions remain unexploded," explains Sami. The bomblets were fired during the five-week conflict in the south between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants.

If the centre of the clusterbomb strike is found, Sami's team needs to sweep the 50-diameter area around it in the search for bomblets. When something suspicious is found, it is marked with a red flag. However, searching and marking the bombs is a stressful job that requires intense concentration and patience one small mistake could prove lethal.

"A searcher might get used to the job, yet, once he gets very familiar with it, he might lose concentration. One day he makes a mistake, the bomblet blows up," says Chris Clark, UNMACC Programme Manager and co-recipient of the Nansen Award.

Mine clearers are only allowed to work in six shifts of 15 minutes each, with a 10-minute break in between. Only a few inches can be cleared after each sweep with the metal detector.

Sami is not the only one who believes the rewards outweigh the risks. "I feel that I have gained the respect of the people, I feel dignity," says 21-year-old Ali Hamzeh, a member of one of Sami's teams. "Although this job is risky, I am happy, especially when I find a bomb. The life I saved could have been the life of my own brother."

Sami's teams work closely with the inhabitants of Aita Al Jabal. Locals come and tell them when they spot a suspicious object on their land, while the mine clearers let everyone know when they are about to destroy munitions with explosives.

"All the villagers here know me and thank me all the time. They always invite me to breakfast or refreshments. They appreciate what we do," says Sami, who once found and destroyed a bomblet located in the local cemetery not long before a funeral was due to take place there.

For Sami, the victims of clusterbombs are a constant reminder of the importance of his job. "Every time I see someone injured by a clusterbomb, I feel that I should have finished my area earlier. There is always more to be done," he says.

By Laure Chedrawi in Aita Al Jabal, Lebanon

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The Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award

Given to individuals or organizations for outstanding service in the cause of refugees.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

Nansen Biography

Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist, polar explorer, diplomat, statesman and humanist, with a deep compassion for his fellow human beings. In 1921 Nansen was appointed the League of Nations' first High Commissioner for Refugees and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in recognition of his work for refugees. UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award in his honour in 1954.

Nansen Biography

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

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