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Munitions researcher on ‘rain of steel’: Monitoring cluster bombs in Syria and the human toll

Since 2012, more than 2,000 Syrians have been killed or […]

20 June 2016

Since 2012, more than 2,000 Syrians have been killed or injured by cluster munitions—an explosive weapon banned by 100 countries—a researcher with an international weapons monitor tells Syria Direct.

But what actually happens when a cluster bomb hits its target?

For one, “that implies that they do hit their targets,” Erin Hunt, a senior researcher at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, responsible for the organization’s Syria desk, tells Syria Direct.

“There is no certainty with where the submunitions will land…usually [the affected area is] about the size of a football field,” says Hunt.

 Unexploded submunitions from a cluster bomb in Lebanon, dropped by Israel in 2006. Photo courtesy of Kristen Demilio.

Additionally, when a cluster bomb fails to function properly, the hundreds of submunitions inside the original canister can lay active in the ground for years—even decades—to come.

“If they are undisturbed for 40 years or longer, they can still go off,” Hunt adds.

“One of our colleagues in Vietnam was recently killed by a submunition leftover from the Vietnam War.”

In this first installment of a two-part interview, Erin Hunt discusses the anatomy of a cluster bomb and the long-term dangers that unexploded submunitions pose for Syria’s citizens, in a conversation with Syria Direct’s Kristen Demilio.

Q: I encountered American-made unexploded cluster munitions in south Lebanon in 2006, dropped by Israel and made in the USA. The thing I have been wondering since that time is, what happens to them if nobody picks them up? Are they inert? Could they go off in 10 years? …Because the ones I saw were buried within stalks of tobacco.

They could go off in 40 years if no one finds them. If they are undisturbed for 40 years or longer, they can still go off. Manufacturers will often say they should go off or self-destruct or make themselves inert when they fail. But we’ve seen submunitions that were supposed to self-destruct sitting on the ground, especially in Lebanon right after that conflict.

There were a whole bunch that should have self-destructed and were still in fields and that sort of thing. They are dangerous until they are disposed of properly by professionals who clear explosives. One of our colleagues in Vietnam was recently killed by a submunition leftover from the Vietnam War.

Q: If they have not detonated, how do you read that? What is their status?

I would read them as: They are still dangerous. They will still go off. Anyone who sees an unexploded submunition on the top of a building, on the ground, in a tree, in a tobacco field as you saw them, should not touch them.

Q: Why haven’t they exploded on impact and what makes them so dangerous?

They haven’t exploded because something went wrong. Maybe they landed on soft ground, or didn’t land hard enough. There’s a whole bunch of different reasons why they would not have exploded. It could be something wrong with the submunition itself. But they are still live explosives and you can’t tell why by just looking at it. You should still treat it like a live explosive.

Q: Could you describe what happens when a cluster bomb hits its target?

That implies that they do hit their targets. Cluster bombs are essentially a big canister with a whole bunch of smaller submunitions inside; anywhere from a dozen to hundreds. For the most part, there is no way to know where the submunitions will land. Usually it’s about the size of a football field and there is no certainty with where the submunitions will land within that surface area.

When they fail to function as they are supposed to, they become de facto landmines on the ground. When a cluster munition is used, it’s essentially all these submunitions, which are small-sized explosives sometimes used to take out a tank or other armored device. It’s like a rain of steel, in the words of one of the phrases I’ve heard used about them.

 Unexploded cluster munitions in a south Lebanon tobacco field. Photo courtesy of Kristen Demilio.

Q: Given the way that a cluster bomb works, is it fair to say that it is pretty much used to target civilians?

You can’t really control where it goes, so if it is used in a civilian area, it will cause unacceptable harm to civilians, who, even if they are not present at the time of the attack, will eventually return to find unexploded submunitions.

Q: In 2006, during the war with Israel, I spent the day with one of Hezbollah’s deminers in Nabatea, a village in south Lebanon that was hit hard with cluster bombs. The town’s residents were in mourning at the time because their top deminer had been killed the day before while trying to disarm a submunition. Can you talk about the complexities of finding the right people to demine on the ground and how this can go sideways?

A lot of the submunition-clearing organizations started working with factory-produced landmines. What makes clearing cluster munitions more dangerous with the ones that we find on the ground or in trees is that something has gone wrong with them, so they are not predictable to the same extent that a factory-produced landmine is.

When you find a cluster submunition on the ground, you don’t know why it hasn’t blown up. A little touch could set it off, or it could be completely inert. You just don’t know. That creates a challenge for clearance operators.

Q: Do you see in your research people who feel they can’t wait for an international organization to come and clear submunitions, and so take it upon themselves to remove them?

We do. Because my job is to track casualties and assistance to victims, I hear more about when it goes wrong. There are a lot of people who are working, untrained, to try to protect their families. That is a tragic decision that people have to make: whether to risk themselves or continue living with the ongoing threat left behind by these munitions.

We see it all over the world, even after conflict, where there is contaminated land by cluster munitions or land mines and people know it’s contaminated, but they choose to take the risk to grow food on the land or cross that land to feed their families.

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