Only up close does it become clear that some of the bulky figures in armored vests scouring the fields of southern Lebanon for unexploded cluster bombs are wearing hijabs under their protective helmets.
Once local teachers, nurses and housewives, this group of women are now fully trained to search for mines and make up the only all-female clearance team in Lebanon, combing the undergrowth centimeter by centimeter for the remnants of one of the most indiscriminate weapons of modern warfare.
Leading the women in the field is Lamis Zein, a 33-year-old divorced mother of two and the team’s supervisor. She was one of the first recruits for the team, which was set up by the de-mining NGO Norwegian People’s Aid.
“When I heard they were recruiting I applied straight away,” said Zein. “At the beginning men were surprised to see us in the field, wearing the same protective equipment as men, doing demolitions of bombs like men. But we work together well as a team of women. We share things that we wouldn’t with male colleagues. We are good at what we do and we are showing that women can do any kind of job.”
Their painstaking task became necessary five years ago this week, after Israel rained cluster munitions on southern Lebanon to a degree the UN condemned as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Fighting had begun in July 2006 when Hezbollah, the armed Islamic group that had been hitting Israel with rockets, went one step further and ambushed an Israeli patrol, killing two soldiers and kidnapping two more. By mid-August ceasefire talks were on the cards. But Israel’s final assault in the last 72 hours before peace on Aug. 14 was to fire as many as four million cluster bomblets into southern Lebanon.
Cluster bombs burst open in mid-air and release bomblets that are supposed to detonate on impact, but many of the ones fired on Lebanon did not explode, lying on the ground instead like landmines with the potential to blow up at any time. The women’s team works with other teams of searchers, all co-ordinated by the Lebanese army, to clear up the unexploded ordnance still littering the countryside.
“Women are more patient than men,” said Zein. “That is why we are good at this job. We work more slowly and maybe we are a little more afraid than men.”
Whatever the sex of those searching the undergrowth, the risks are still the same — one careless move and they could lose a leg. The previous day a searcher in another de-mining team was injured, reminding everyone of the dangers of the job. Everyone has their blood type embroidered on their vests for good reason.
“My kids always worry about me, especially yesterday when they heard about the accident,” says Abeer Asaad, team member and mother to five daughters. “They asked me to quit my job yesterday, they were so scared.”
“I was unemployed when I heard that Norwegian People’s Aid was recruiting women for a de-mining team and I applied without telling anyone, not even my husband. When he found out he didn’t want me to do it. I was scared too. Just hearing the word ‘bomb’ would make you scared. But when I began to work it was different, especially when you are careful all the time and follow the rules. You need to be alert and focused when you are in the field, and you must check the ground slowly.”
Zein too says her family has come to accept her job after four years in the field. “I was an English teacher for eight years. I wanted a change, and this could not be more different than teaching.