While war rages around Libyan city, ACT launches demining programme

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

by Paul Jeffrey

Misrata, Libya. Navigating through a picket of NATO warships posted off the Libyan coast, an ACT Alliance demining team sailed into the besieged city of Misrata on Monday in an effort to assist residents of the contested area as they recover from months of war.

Aboard a Turkish ferry, a two-person mine action team from ACT member DanChurchAid arrived to begin operations. The boat, chartered by the International Organisation for Migration, sailed the day before from Benghazi, the city in eastern Libya that is the de facto capital of rebels fighting to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The boat returned to Benghazi within hours, filled with wounded people and hundreds of African migrants fleeing Misrata.

Forces loyal to Gadhafi have surrounded Misrata on three sides, and the only access to the city is by sea. But fierce fighting in and around the city has anyway persuaded most outsiders to stay away. The thunder of artillery and bombing echoes repeatedly in the distance during the team’s first day.

The landscape is littered with the still dangerous debris of war, some lying around, some embedded in the walls of family homes. Much of the city centre was abandoned during the heaviest fighting, and displaced families are living with others around the edges of the city, afraid to come back to homes that may be unsafe.

Within days, the ACT demining workers will begin training teams of local residents to search for and identify unexploded ordnance left over from the fighting. The deminers will then remove and safely detonate the explosives.

“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,” said Fred Pavey, the team leader.

The team will also devote time to clearing several key facilities, identified in partnership with the Libyan Red Crescent and the local government council.

Pavey has been waiting for weeks in Benghazi for permission to begin work there, and says that leaders in Misrata, where the fighting has been fiercest, are eager to get started in recovering areas for safe civilian work.

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

The United Nations has yet to establish activities here, and Pavey said the ACT team’s presence should encourage other groups to come to Misrata.

“What we do enables the UN and other NGOs to come in and do what they can do. When we clear roads, for example, then the World Food Programme can send trucks along those roads in safety,” he said.

A team from the UK-based Mines Advisory Group also came to Misrata on the same ship, and both groups will coordinate their training together.

According to Paul Boncz, an operations and quality assessment officer for the United Nation’s Joint Mine Action Coordination Team, the families displaced by fighting in Misrata are now living in houses with six or more families crowded together. The removal of mines and unexploded ordnance will make it possible for families whose homes were not destroyed to return home, while also making schools, water supplies and religious buildings safe. “These are all important parts of everyday life”, said Boncz.  “The local economy will also start to pick up as people come home and open their small shops.”

Boncz, who made a six-hour visit to the city on June 13, said he hoped the UN would soon decide it was safe enough to begin operations here. Meanwhile, he said the ACT team had its work cut out for it.

“There are artillery shells, rockets, mortars, tank rounds, cluster munitions, and all sorts of ammunition for heavy machine guns, all of it lying around all over the place,” Boncz said. “There are also buildings that have been booby-trapped and need to be cleared. It doesn’t matter who’s responsible for putting it there. The fact is that it’s the civilian population that suffers if it is not cleared.”