The "Toys" That Kill in Lebanon

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Nicholas Blanford for TIME

A member of an ordnance disposal team marks a BLU-63 bomblet on a hill outside the village of Hallousiyeh, south lebanon.

To 17-year-old Rasha Zayoun, the small metal canister with a ribbon attached to the top looked like a toy. Her father, Mohammed, had found it while harvesting wild thyme in a field near her house in the southern Lebanese village of Marakeh, and had taken it home in his bag of herbs.

One evening four weeks ago, Rasha picked up the strange object and played with the ribbon, wondering what it was. "Then I felt a tingle of electricity," she says. "I threw it from me and it exploded before it hit the floor."

The blast tore off her left leg and wounded her mother, Alia, and brother Qassem, 21, who were in the room at the time. The "toy" was a cluster bomblet, just one of the estimated 1 million unexploded sub-munitions scattered across the valleys and hills of south Lebanon during last summer's war between Israel and Hizballah. Cluster bombs — an anti-personnel and anti-armor weapon that disperses dozens or hundreds of grenade-sized bomblets across a wide area — have killed at least 30 people and wounded over 180 according to U.N. figures since the Aug. 14 cease-fire ended the month-long conflict.

Last week, the U.S. State Department announced that a preliminary investigation had concluded that Israel may have breached agreements with Washington on the use of U.S.-supplied cluster munitions during the Lebanon war. "The Department takes very seriously its responsibility to ensure that U.S.-provided weapons are used for purposes authorized under U.S. law," said an official of the State Department. The U.S. Arms Export Control Act restricts the use of U.S.-made weaponry to "internal security" and "legitimate self-defense," which Israel would certainly claim were the purpose of its actions against Hizballah. But more precise "end-use restrictions" are contained in U.S.-Israel contracts, according to a State Department official, although the wording is classified. These restrictions are believed to require that Israel refrain from endangering civilians in its use of the munitions. Human rights groups have accused both Israel and Hizballah of committing war crimes through indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas during the war. If the State Department's preliminary finding is confirmed, it could pressure the White House to censure Israel, possibly through a freeze on cluster bomb exports to the Jewish State.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said earlier that "Israel takes the concerns raised by the U.S. extremely seriously" and had been as "forthcoming and transparent as possible," adding that "Israel is itself conducting an ongoing internal investigation as to the use of munitions during the Lebanon conflict."

Cluster sub-munitions are supposed to explode on impact. Manufacturers claim a dud rate of around 5 percent, but the U.N. estimates that more than 30 percent of cluster bomblets fired into south Lebanon failed to detonate. When hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting began to return to the area, they found thousands of cluster bomblets in gardens, houses and streets, orange orchards, banana plantations and olive groves, often hanging from the branches.

Chris Clark, Lebanon program manager for the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center (MACC), said that his organization had logged some 840 individual cluster bomb strikes, covering an area of 13 square miles. A decorated former British soldier who oversees global operations for the U.N. Mine Action Service and has cleared munitions in Kosovo and Sudan, Clark says the cluster bomb situation in south Lebanon "is the worst I've ever seen," adding, "It's unprecedented and unbelievable." Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says that Israel "fully supports the U.N. efforts to clear up munitions in Lebanon."

A map of cluster bomb strike sites in south Lebanon pinned to the wall of his office illustrates the severity of the problem. A red rash covers much of the map, concentrated on the areas south of Tyre, and around the towns of Tibnine and Nabatieh.

By mid-February, Clark hopes to have 55 teams in the field collecting cluster munitions, and hopes that the area could be cleared by year's end. "That doesn't mean that there won't be any more cluster bombs, but they won't be causing casualties on a daily and weekly basis," he says.

Clark says his mission is hampered by a lack of cooperation from the Israeli military. Israel has been repeatedly asked to aid the bomblet-clearing mission by providing such information as the grid coordinates of cluster-bomb selected targets, the number of strikes and the types of submunition. He says that the U.N. has received "nothing" from Israel. Israeli spokesman Regev counters that Israel is considering the U.N. request for "more information," but he says that Israel has already given the U.N. maps of strike areas and technical information that are "sufficient" for helping the bomb-clearing effort.

On a wind-swept hilltop outside the village of Halloussiyeh, 10 miles northeast of Tyre, a team from Bactec, a British ordnance clearing company, inches its way along a terrace of small olive trees, hunting for BLU-63 cluster munitions. Most of the tennis-ball sized metal bomblets are easily visible, although some have begun to sink into the chalky mud.

"We are prioritizing agricultural land," says Simon Lovell, the site supervisor. Each bomblet is cordoned off with red and white tape before being linked together with explosive cord and destroyed in a controlled blast. One of the three sites he is clearing has yielded over 300 of the 1970s-era bomblets. The BLU-63s found in south Lebanon were manufactured between 1973 and 1978, according to Clark, which explains their high dud rate.

"They are well past their shelf life," he says. "The Israelis knew how old they were and they knew that they weren't going to work."

Whether the Bush Administration chooses to rebuke Israel or not will make little difference to Rasha Zayoun, who faces a bleak future. She spends her days lying in bed in the family sitting room waiting for her leg to heal before doctors can begin fitting her with a prosthetic limb.

"I'm not thinking about my future," she says with a shy smile. "But I feel okay and I don't have any sadness. I have a strong heart."

—With reporting by Tim McGirk/Jerusalem and Elaine Shannon/Washington