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'We ran away from death and we don't want to go back to Syria in a box because of landmines'

by Sean Sutton/MAG | @MAGsaveslives | MAG (Mines Advisory Group)
Wednesday, 28 May 2014 12:10 GMT

Syrian refugees Mohamed and his children, close to a dangerous area contaminated by unexploded cluster munitions. [Photo: Sean Sutton/MAG]

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than a million Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the start of the conflict in their country two years ago. Many have settled close to areas contaminated with explosive weapons left over from past conflicts.

Sixty-seven year-old Mahmoud Alsaleh left his village near Homs with his family – six sons, four daughters and almost 50 grandchildren – last year: “Both sides were fighting, and we were in the middle,” he says. “All our houses were destroyed and 15 of my relatives were killed. What could we do? We had to flee.”

“At first we went to Turkey, but it was very hard there. Food was difficult to get, people were not treated equally and we had no money, so we decided to come to Lebanon.

“We came in three groups, one month apart. It was a very dangerous journey, but we all survived it.”

Mahmoud is in charge of the Faisal Heimour refugee camp, set up on the side of a hill near the south-eastern village of Baaloul, with views across Bekaa Valley to Mount Lebanon.

The horrors of the Syrian war are not far away: the border is less than 40 kilometres from here, Damascus an hour’s drive. But the 26 families living in shelters made out of tents and wood find themselves in danger from other conflicts that have long since ended.

Barely 100 metres from Faisal Heimour is an area hit by cluster munition strikes in earlier conflicts. Many of the explosive bomblets fired didn’t explode, and continue to threaten lives and limbs.

“Nine months ago a shepherd here had an accident,” Mahmoud says. “One of his sheep set off a bomb; two were killed and six were injured. We were very shocked, and that is how we found out there were bombs near our camp.”

“I used to be a fighter when I was young so I am not so afraid, but I’m very concerned for the children and I tell them not to go to the dangerous areas. We came here because we didn’t want to lose our children in Syria, but now we find out it is not safe here.

Also nearby is a minefield, sandwiched between this and another refugee camp.

“This shocks me. We accept our terrible conditions and we knew it would be hard, but we did expect to feel safe. For us, that is the most important thing.

“We ran away from death and we don’t want to go back to Syria in a box because of landmines.”

MAG teams recently demarcated the area with warning signs, and our Community Liaison staff are currently giving Risk Education to people inside the camp to help minimise the risk from mines and unexploded ordnance.

“I am happy the areas are now marked, and the lessons for the children are very important,” says Mahmoud.“But I still worry children will go there even though we tell them not to.

“So we have to decide which bombs to face. Here or Syria. Here is definitely better, but I hope no-one will get killed or injured.”

“Our children can’t go to school. We have no money for buses, school fees or books. This is a big problem and the kids are going wild. They throw big stones at each other because they are so bored. They were clever students in Syria, but we all worry for the future.

“We have had help from aid agencies, like water containers, wheel barrows and mattresses, but it is hard to get work. My son tries every single day, but in the last month he has only managed to find work for three days.

“We have some chickens but no goats. We mostly eat wild vegetables and sometimes we buy wheat or flour. That is what we live on. We all share what we have.”

MAG teams were tasked by the Lebanese Mine Action Center to demarcate 15 minefields and conducted surveys of 23 sites of cluster munition strikes in 15 villages close to the Syrian border, in the Bekaa West and Rashaya regions. MAG is now desperately trying to raise the funds to send technical teams to make these areas safe.

• MAG's work at Faisal Heimour refugee camp is part of a project funded by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Conflict Pool.

For more photos from Faisal Heimour refugee camp, go to: www.maginternational.org/faisalheimour.