UN helps clear Libya of the deadly remnants of revolution

Monday, July 30, 2012

Large quantities of ammunition and mines abandoned
on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya.
[Credit: Rob Buurveld] 
Misrata/Tripoli: The 2011 revolution in Libya left the country and its population with a variety of Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) hazards, including Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) in homes and schools, ammunition and heavy weaponry left unattended, and the even more dangerous threat of newly laid minefields.

The United Nations Mine Action program (UNMAS) has been on the ground clearing UXO, securing stores of ammunition across the country as well as coordinating the operations of the International NGOs.

UNMAS work today remains crucial as it continues its clearing operations, saving life and limb of Libyan civilians, and reducing the local and international threat posed by poorly stored and abandoned ammunition.

Throughout the conflict fighting took place in city streets, in houses and along main highways causing widespread contamination, and as the fighting moved away from an area, weapons and ammunition were abandoned leaving it freely accessible to the wider population.

“It’s a country that has gone from a population that wasn’t armed to a population that is very heavily armed” says Max Dyck, Libya Program Manager of UNMAS.

The NATO bombing campaign during the conflict targeted military installations in Gadhafi controlled areas including Ammunition Storage Areas (ASA). In total 440 Ammunition sites and bunkers were targeted by NATO as well as an unknown number targeted by Gadhafi forces.

Dyck further says, “There has been new use of landmines; there has been use of cluster munitions in urban areas. The majority of the fighting occurred in the urban areas and on the main arterial highway along the coastal area so there’s been massive effect on the population, especially the displaced populations.”

And those sites now lie littered with volatile unexploded ordnance.

Wayne Lomax, Libya team leader of Mines Advisory Group says, “The types of ammunitions that are here are actually very considerably from small arms to artillery shells all the way though to guided missiles and actually, believe or not, torpedoes.”

“A lot of rockets were fired in this conflict but it just lies there on the street or side of the road, it still poses a massive threat because the fusing system could be armed and the slightest movement could cause it to function and actually many people have been hurt and killed by moving such items,” Lomax adds.

Meanwhile not all of the tonnes of ammunitions that were dropped on the city and the surrounding area had exploded and many are scattered around homes, mosques and fields. These explosive remnants of war have become souvenirs of the liberation of Libya, and many adults collect them and display them in the streets, hospitals and at home, and also children play with them causing accidents which frequently tragic.

“The children, they don’t know what it is, so they tamper with it and they play. They throw stones at it and some of the accidents in Misrata at least have been happening with children. But also they’re happening within the farmlands where people want to start ploughing their lands and they’re fining items. So they are removing the items by themselves and therefore accidents are happening,” points out Teresa Tavares, Risk Education Project Manager of Handicap International.

Max Dyck says, “There was a very rapid survey done to identify the hardest hit neighbourhoods. We then just says to an organization those are, that’s your area and they are going in and they are literally just moving through finding what they can find, collecting it, picking it up, moving it, moving it outside to areas that are safe for later destruction. There is a lot of stuff out there that is dangerous to move and that is being marked and destroyed.”

UNSMAS teams have removed or destroyed 180,000 landmines and ERW. This includes items found in 2,624 homes and 68 schools, enabling life to return to normal for thousands of families and tens of thousands of school-children.

“Ammunition management, what you see behind me here, controlling this is counter proliferation of arms,” adds Dyck.

Wayne Lomax asserts, “The problem comes where there is very little security in the area and that the ammunitions themselves, particularly the ones that are serviceable can be taken away freely and used by subversive elements if that sort of thing happened or smuggled out to other countries that could use them.”

And those threats compound the already extensive mine threat found in the country prior to conflict, with according to UNMAS an estimated 1.5 – 2 million mines along the Libyan - Chadian border and 400 Km of mine fields along the Libyan - Egyptian border.

“If we can help the Libyans to control this that means there are no arms going anywhere else,” says Dyck.

And anywhere else could be too close.

He adds, “You know, without, on the ground what you see here will, in a street in Europe.”

Clearance takes time and resources so in the interim 33 Risk Education teams have delivered messages to 150,000 Libyans on how to live safely with the threat of landmines and ERW.

Teresa Tavares, who is a Risk Education Project Manager of Handicap International says, “We have teams that are doing risk education, not just with remnants of war but also regarding small arms light weapons because weapons misuse is a big problem in Libya at the moment and many accidents are happening particularly with children.”

Awareness sessions are mainly designed to get the message across at a local level. The team of voluntary workers in Libya gave animated and illustrated presentations in mosques, and schools so that children had fun while learning. The key message was: never touch explosive remnants of war!

But the region is so severely affected that there is still need to continue identifying munitions and providing people with information for a longer period o f time.

“There needs to be quite serious involvement by the international community in assisting the Libyans to get this work done,” stresses Max Dyck.

Many of the threats facing the country require immediate responses in order to be effective and as such the international community is called upon to assist Libya through its transition from post conflict reconstruction to stabilization, development and economic recovery, but first all weapons must be cleared.

According to Dyck, “None of the rehabilitation and reconstruction can happen until the guys on the ground, the NGOs and the people doing the physical work at the front have actually cleared it to facilitate this return.”

Libya is a wealthy country; however in this immediate aftermath of the conflict much of this wealth is inaccessible.

“There is a misapprehension I suppose that Libya is a wealthy country. That Libya has lots of ready cash. And Libya is in a position to pay for it. Libya doesn’t have cash at the moment. Libya does not have the ability to pay for these activities now. And there needs to be quite serious involvement by the International community in assisting the Libyans to get this work done,” Dyck concludes. 

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