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Living without a leg
Published in Bikya Masr on 14 - 11 - 2009

NABATIEH, Lebanon: Ali Murad smiles serenely as he tells of the day he lost his leg.
Ali, 25, was working as a mine clearer close to the Blue Line that splits Lebanon and Israel and had not long been in the job. He was part of a 400-strong squad of clearance workers continuing the removal of the estimated two million unexploded cluster bombs that still litter Lebanese soil – remnants from the country’s devastating 2006 July-August war with Israel.
Ali’s team of ordnance removal experts had been involved in the painstaking process of surveying the untilled soil, inch by inch, to ensure each patch was free from cluster bomb fragments. After taking a break for tea, Ali donned his cumbersome safety gear and headed back to his clearance post. These were the last moments of Ali’s old life.
“When I went to hospital I wasn’t unconscious so I remember everything,” he says. “We were working normally in the field. On the way back to my line” – he pauses for effect, then claps his hands. “Bang.”
Somewhere between the safe zone and his removal lane, Ali stepped on an unexploded M-77 submunition. In a fraction of a second, the blast obliterated his right foot and badly damaged the other leg. With Ali hemorrhaging blood, the on-site medical team swept into action to save their wounded colleague.
“The team had a dressing on [his leg] and got him out of the field in about four minutes,” says MAG Technical Field Manager Jeffrey Caldwell.
“When the bang happened, I saw my leg. I said ‘It’s finished,’” Ali quietly recalls. “The medic was telling me there was nothing to worry about, that it would be OK. I told him to forget this one,” he says, pointing to the gap below his right knee. “Take care of the other one.”
Ali had become one of the 352 civilians killed or maimed by unexploded cluster bombs in Lebanon since the cessation of hostilities with Israel in 2006.
With the signing of Security Council Resolution 1701 imminent, Israel dropped up to four million cluster bombs over swathes of south Lebanon, an act subsequently described as “insane and monstrous” by an Israeli Army commander.
Designed to kill indiscriminately, almost 40 percent of these weapons were either too old or dropped from too low an altitude to detonate upon impact with the ground. Some buried in the dense orange groves around Nabatieh, others nestled in clutches of long grass, becoming de facto landmines that continue to contribute to the list of over 1,200 Lebanese who perished in the war.
On Sunday, a 44-year old civilian from the southern village of East Zawtar suffered severe facial injuries after treading on a cluster bomb fragment while tending his land, a demonstration of how crucial the de-mining work performed by Lebanon’s remaining 18 clearance teams still is.
“These workers risk their lives and they come to work every day with the clear understanding that they might not be coming back,” says MAG Country Programme Manager, Dr Christina Bennike.
Bennike is in charge of 10 teams of mine clearance workers and has worked in numerous dangerous environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. She says that Ali’s accident was among the worst she has ever witnessed as the result of a cluster bomb fragment.
Ali pleaded with surgeons at Hammoud Hospital, in the nearby port of Sidon, to save as much of his ruined limb as possible. He was in a critical condition, but his ordeal was just getting started: in listening to their stricken patient, the surgeons made a terrible error.
They amputated too little of the injured area and, in order for a prosthetic limb to be fitted, Ali required an additional dangerous operation to remove more of his leg.
Ali’s injuries were so severe that doctors initially feared he would never walk again. What they hadn’t reckoned with was the will of their patient.
“The day of the accident I went to see Ali in the hospital,” says Bennike. “The first thing he asked was ‘When can I come back to work?’”
Traumatized and with a young family to support, Ali began the slow process of rehabilitation.
“I remember thinking of my home,” he says. “You lose something in your body but your thoughts are not just for you. You think of your son, your wife. You think of things in a different way.”
“Losing a limb is akin to coming to terms with a bereavement,” says Bennike. “You have to mourn the loss, and naturally it takes a long time to learn to live without it.”
To Bennike’s delight – and doctors’ amazement – Ali was back in the field clearing mines less than three months after his accident. He was even back on removal duty before a suitable false leg had been found.
Bennike explains the importance of getting Ali back into the fields as soon as possible.
“Psychological recovery is keeping these guys working, not to leave them at home feeling sorry for themselves, thinking and reflecting,” she says.
“This is something that we have started this year. We keep [injured staff] on the payroll so they have access to medical support. [We have] a network of people who have been through similar experiences.”
Even though others have lost limbs and returned to work during the three years since MAG started clearing Lebanon of cluster bombs, Bennike admits to being awestruck by Ali’s irascibility.
“There was another accident 10 days after Ali’s. We didn’t want to tell him but he found out,” she says. “He found a wheelchair and dragged himself out of bed. He wheeled himself down to the intensive care unit to check on his colleague.”
Then the finger pointing began. How could a worker, who had received months of safety and protocol training, have made such a grave error? Had he been at fault, or his co-workers? Had the metal detectors used that morning been properly calibrated? The answers to these questions – crucial if Ali was to be properly compensated – were not long in coming.
A subsequent investigation revealed that Ali’s munition had been buried at a rough depth of 20cm. Not only did this absolve Ali from any professional negligence – given that the bomblet was not visible and hence hadn’t been “missed” – it also probably saved his life.
“One inch of standard earth [covering a bomblet] increases your chances of survival by about three percent,” Caldwell explains. “So for every inch of separation you have, your chance of survival goes up.
“We found that all the procedures were done properly and everything was the way it was meant to be. It was just one of those accidents that you cannot stop. It was just going to happen.”
Ali admits he is luck to be alive. Looking at him several months later, it is almost impossible to discern the physical effects of the accident.
It is only when he shuffles off his seat and limps into a colleague’s car that the physical impact of Lebanon’s scourge becomes evident.
“I’m happy it was me,” Ali says before heading to the last clearance operation of the day. “It could have been a woman collecting zaatar [Thyme], or a child playing. At least it was my job.”
BM


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