Mine clearers receive Nansen Award for "heroic" work in Lebanon

UNHCR chief praises "heroic" work of mine clearers in southern Lebanon after presenting them with this year's Nansen Refugee Award.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presents the Nansen Refugee Award to Chris Clark, programme manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre &; South Lebanon.   © UNHCR/D.Favre

GENEVA, October 7 (UNHCR) - The head of the UN refugee agency praised the "heroic" work of mine clearers before presenting this year's prestigious Nansen Refugee Award to staff and partners of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC) for their key role in enabling hundreds of thousands of displaced people to resume a normal life in southern Lebanon.

"One of the most heroic types of humanitarian work is to demine or dismantle these devices in order to allow people to go back home and resume their lives," Guterres said Monday evening, before handing the Nansen Medal and certificates to Chris Clark, coordinator of UNMACC's Mine Action Programme in Lebanon, and to Jamal Hammoud, a Lebanese mine clearance supervisor.

The annual award, which comes with a medal and a cash prize of US$100,000 funded by Norway and Switzerland, is given out yearly to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes.

"It is clearly a great honour and a privilege to receive this award, especially as it gives recognition to all deminers, those men and women, both Lebanese and international who have worked tirelessly to clear unexploded sub-munitions and landmines from south Lebanon," Clark, a decorated former British soldier, said in a ceremony held in Geneva's Palais des Nations on the first day of the annual meeting of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee.

The Nansen Award recognizes the work of UNMACC staff and almost 1,000 Lebanese and international mine clearers and supervisors from eight mine clearance organizations. Under UNMACC's Mine Action Programme, they have cleared some 150,000 bomblets scattered around southern Lebanon by Israeli-fired clusterbombs during the July-August 2006 war in the south.

The fighting forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, but when a ceasefire came into effect and they started returning home, many people found their homes and farmland contaminated by cluster munitions.

"They were shocked by an enemy which was awaiting them, an enemy that does not differentiate between soldiers or civilians, war or peace," Hammoud said at Monday's ceremony. He was among the scores of locals, including women, to join the humanitarian mission to clear the land of bomblets.

Millions of square metres of agricultural land have been freed up for use and Clark believes that clusterbombs will pose a negligible problem from the end of this year. But it has come at a cost - 20 civilians and 14 deminers have been killed and scores injured.

The Nansen Selection Committee said it had chosen Clark and the team for their outstanding contribution to the safety and security of internally displaced people and returnees in Lebanon, as well as humanitarian workers. UNMACC was crucial in providing support to humanitarian operations in south Lebanon during the conflict and in the initial stages of the ceasefire, as well as in continuing clearance operations.

Clark has said this year's winners would like to use the award's US$100,000 cash prize to set up an olive press so that farmers in areas cleared of cluster munitions could produce their own oil at a small cost.

The Nansen Refugee Award, created in 1954, is named after late Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the world's first international refugee official. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Médecins Sans Frontières, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Luciano Pavarotti and Graça Machel.

Last year's Nansen winner was Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer from Malta who demonstrated her dedication to helping refugees arriving in Malta in the face of threats that included an arson attack on her car and home.