A de-mining team run by ACT Alliance, one of the world’s largest humanitarian networks, is clearing rebel-controlled Misrata of tons of unexploded ordnance to bring safety to 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.
27 June 2011