Libya: If you bomb a place, clean it up

Friday, June 17, 2011

  • 01-libya613-0357.jpgA street in the centre of Misrata, the besieged Libyan city where civilians and rebel forces are surrounded on three sides by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 02-libya613-0994.jpgBullet casings lying on a street in Misrata, where fierce fighting raged for weeks. Much of the city centre was abandoned during the heaviest fighting, and displaced families are living around the edges of the city, afraid to come back to homes that may be unsafe. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 03-libya2011jeffrey-misrata616-387.jpgThursday 16 June: Johnny Thomsen, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, inspects an ammunition warehouse hit by a NATO air strike in Misrata. Thomsen, from Denmark, is part of a team from the ACT Alliance that arrived in Misrata on June 13. The NATO strikes against weapons depots such as this one left a lot of damaged but not destroyed ordnance, which ACT believes poses a threat to the civilian population. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 06-libya613-0871.jpgChildren play on a tank captured by rebel forces in Misrata. "There is a moral imperative to see that the residual risk to the civilian population is cleaned up," says Richard MacCormack, an ACT Alliance demining expert. "Trade is starting up again and people are going about their lives, which is increasing the risk because the area is contaminated with explosive ordnance all over the place — artillery, shells, air dropped munitions and some evidence of improvised explosive devices." ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 07-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1593.jpgFred Pavey, a British explosive ordnance disposal technician leading the ACT demining team in Libya, removes part of a Spanish-built MAT-120 cluster mortar found on June 16 alongside a heavily travelled road in Misrata. “There is an immediate impact to our work here. When we can clear a house, the family can move back in and quickly get on with its life, the children can play safely and neighbours resume caring for each other,” says Pavey. ACT staff on the ground in Misrata have learned of cases of a number of children evacuated to Tunisia with limbs lost to unexploded ordnance. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 04-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1084.jpgJohnny Thomsen, part of the ACT humanitarian mine action team, surveys Russian-built SA3 missiles at a former Libyan Air Force site outside Misrata. The missiles were damaged in a NATO air strike, and the team, concerned about the safety of civilians travelling on a nearby road, investigate the site and mark which items need to be rendered safe. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 05-libya2011jeffrey-misrata616-299.jpgJohnny Thomsen inspects a Russian-made bomb, still in its crate, which was damaged but not destroyed by a NATO air strike in Misrata. The ACT Alliance team has been tasked by the United Nations for this initial clearing and cordoning task to identify which ordnance poses a threat to civilians. "Nothing is risk-free. There is no doubt about that. But, with their training and experience, the team will operate with an acceptable level of risk. They balance the need to neutralise the threat to the population with the risk that the problem presents to themselves," says ACT demining expert Richard MacCormack. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 08-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1329.jpgJohnny Thomsen marks a Russian-built SA3 missile at a former Libyan Air Force site outside Misrata. The demining team regularly purchases explosives from mining companies and received permission from the Interim Transitional National Council to bring explosives into rebel-held areas of Libya for the purpose of destroying ordnance. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 09-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1312.jpgFred Pavey inspects part of a Russian-built SA3 missile at a former Libyan Air Force site outside Misrata. The team reports evidence of landmines, cluster munitions, improvised explosive devices, unexploded artillery shells, mortar rounds and legacy land mines from World War II. ACT demining expert Richard MacCormack reports, "At this surface to air missile site, the team secured three live warheads. However, we understand that some of the other warheads have been opened up and retrieved by local fishermen for use in their fishing, which is extremely dangerous." ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 10-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1743.jpgFred Pavey neutralises an improvised explosive device alongside a heavily travelled road in Misrata. The device used a Claymore-type mine connected to both victim- and command-activated switches. The team will also devote time to clearing several key facilities, identified in partnership with the Libyan Red Crescent and the local government council. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 11-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1272.jpgJohnny Thomsen marks a portion of a Russian-built SA3 missile on June 15 at a former Libyan Air Force site outside Misrata. Thomsen is marking this booster element of the missile as not posing a threat. Several missiles here were damaged in a NATO air strike, and a team from the ACT Alliance investigated the site and marked which items need to be rendered safe and removed. The team members have 20 years of experience in dealing with unsafe ordnance. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 12-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1408.jpgFred Pavey marks a portion of a Russian-built SA3 missile on June 15 at a former Libyan Air Force site outside Misrata. Thomsen is marking this booster element of the missile as not posing a threat. Several missiles here were damaged in a NATO air strike, and a team from the ACT Alliance investigated the site and marked which items need to be rendered safe and removed. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 13-libya2011jeffrey-misrata615-1707.jpgJohnny Thomsen (left) and Fred Pavey, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, neutralise an improvised explosive device alongside a heavily travelled road in Misrata. The device used a Claymore-type mine connected to both victim- and command-activated switches. “There is dangerous stuff on the ground all over the place here, and our work will make an immediate difference,” Pavey said. “One woman told me, ‘We just want our kids back in school.’ People here want to get back to normal, even though the rebels are fighting just 20 kilometres away.” ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 14-libya2011jeffrey-misrata616-317.jpgJohnny Thomsen inspects the inside of an ammunition bunker hit by a NATO air strike in Misrat. The NATO strikes against weapons deposits such as this one left a lot of damaged but not destroyed ordnance, which the group believes poses a threat to the civilian population. The team waited for weeks in Benghazi for permission to begin work here, and says that leaders in Misrata, where the fighting has been fiercest, are eager to get started in recovering areas for safe civilian work. ACT/Paul Jeffrey
  • 15-libya613-0373.jpgA boy plays on a tank captured by rebel forces in Misrata, the besieged Libyan city where civilians and rebel forces are surrounded on three sides by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. ACT/Paul Jeffrey

by Sandra Cox

A de-mining team run by one of the world’s largest humanitarian networks is clearing rebel-controlled Misrata of tons of unexploded ordnance to bring safety to the city’s civilians.

In a race against time to clear live munitions in the battle-torn Libyan city before normal life resumes, de-mining experts are rendering ordnance safe and training civilians in the delicate art of de-activating warheads.

Bombing in Misrata, which began in a concerted attack by Moammar Gaddafi’s forces, was temporarily intensified in March when Nato began its airstrikes. Though designed to protect civilians, the Nato strikes have added new hazards to their lives, adding an array of unexploded ordnance to a landscape strewn with thousands of unexploded shells, landmines, cluster munitions, artillery shells and mortar rounds, which pose a deadly hazard to the people of Misrata.

Macabre museums of unexploded shells, warheads and mines have ready sprung up around the city, and a deadly new hobby of arms tourism is in vogue. Children are using the battle zones as life-size playgrounds, where they risk losing limbs or their lives.

For Briton Richard MacCormack, head of the de-mining team run by global aid network ACT Alliance, there is a moral imperative incumbent on all armed forces in the conflict to see that the residual risk to the civilian population is cleaned up. ACT staff on the ground in Misrata have learned of cases of a number of children evacuated to Tunisia with limbs lost to unexploded ordnance.

And the danger for those that carry out this most extreme of humanitarian missions is that they themselves could lose their limbs – or even their lives.

With the understated manner of a former British army officer, MacCormack plays down the danger to his team. "Nothing is risk-free. There is no doubt about that. But, with their training and experience, the team will operate with an acceptable level of risk. They balance the need to neutralise the threat to the population with the risk that the problem presents to themselves."

As a reminder of the danger, fellow ordnance disposal technician Fred Pavey carries around an inflatable rubber chicken – a gift from his wife. This icon of cowardice is his reminder that she prefers her husband a coward than a corpse.

According to MacCormack, many of Misrata's inhabitants are oblivious to the dangers of explosive ordnance and ammunition. “As a result, there is some dangerous activity taking place. Our team saw a guy getting on a bus with a misfired, unstable RPG-7 rocket launcher."

Some areas are littered with improvised explosives that have been booby-trapped to kill. “It is very important to deal with the problem before a child runs into a trip wire."

Pavey, who has been clearing bombs on a heavily-travelled roadside near Misrata, said the work created corridors of access that allows the United Nations and aid agencies to send in trucks laden with life-saving food, medicines and relief goods.

“There is dangerous stuff on the ground all the over the place here, and our work will make an immediate difference.

“One woman told me, ‘We just want out kids back in school.’ People here want to get back to normal, even though the rebels are fighting just 20 kilometres away,” Pavey said.

The next job of ACT’s de-mining team is clearing Misrata's so-called museums of mass-destruction – ad hoc collections of live and dead munitions that have appeared in homes and businesses throughout the city in the last couple of weeks.

ACT is an alliance of 111 faith-based organisations that work together for justice for the world's poor and oppressed. As a global coalition with strong local roots in 140 countries, ACT mobilises US$1.6 billion annually in humanitarian assistance, development and advocacy work. The alliance has over 33,000 people working for it globally.