An Explosive Legacy: Travels with a Bomb Disposal Unit in Libya

By Till Mayer

The war in Libya is over, but life is still dangerous. The country is littered with unexploded ordinance from the 2011 rebellion that overthrew autocrat Moammar Gadhafi. Efforts to encourage militias to forfeit their weapons have made little progress.

The olive tree casts a long shadow. It's shortly before the harvest, and the branches are heavily laden with black fruit. But this idyllic image is deceptive. It was almost as if the war had started all over again, and it's a miracle that Medad Ali Kamadin's old red tractor wasn't blown to bits, and that the farmer isn't lying dead next to the wreckage in his field. "I heard a metallic scratching noise when I was plowing. When I turned around, I saw them," says the 55-year-old, pointing to the artillery shells sticking out of the ground near the olive tree.

"Unbelievable. And you drove over them with the plow?" asks Joma Sabti, shaking his head. Then he and his coworker, Wedad Dwini, "fence in" the site, making a rectangle around it with red-and-white plastic tape. Sabti gives the farmer a flyer and warns him not to let children get too close.

Sabti, a member of the hotline team of Handicap International (HI), routinely visits farmers like Kamadin. In fact, hardly a day goes by without someone calling the hotline to say that he or she has found a shell, a bomb or some ammunition. The young man responds to the calls by securing the site where the explosives were found. Members of HI's bomb-disposal unit come to the site later on, and if they are unable to disarm the fuse, they take the unexploded ordnance (UXO) with them. If that isn't an option, the explosives are detonated on site.

On some days, Sabti and Dwini also stand in front of classrooms, telling wide-eyed pupils about how a shell can rip off an entire arm. "Children are often victims. They think these terrible things are toys," says Sabti. The HI programs conducted by the German national association, which range from educating people about the dangers of UXO to bomb disposal, are funded by the German Foreign Ministry. There are eight national associations in the HI network.

The Remnants of War

"This here was a giant battlefield in the uprising against Gadhafi," says Sabti, as we drive away along a bumpy road. Burned-out tanks are lined up on the nearby asphalt road. But the fighting in 2011 left behind something far more dangerous.

The next call to the hotline is from someone close by. Thousands of shells landed in fields near the village of Dafnia, a suburb of Misurata. Both sides fired on each other almost incessantly.

For Mohammed Hwiedi, the fighting left behind fear and a field full of shrapnel, including twisted pieces of rockets, the remains of rocket-propelled grenades and missiles. When members of the HI team walk across the field, they step across countless pieces of war debris. "I will not work the field until every square meter of soil has been declared safe," says the farmer. But that could take some time. There are still countless pieces of UXO in the area surrounding Misurata. Meanwhile, Hwiedi doesn't know how he will support his family in the long term. "I have to be able to cultivate my fields soon. Our savings have almost run out," said the 55-year-old, hanging his head.

Paul McCullough is familiar with the hardships of farmers like Hwiedi. The 50-year-old former British soldier works for HI in Misurata, where he defuses the deadly remnants of the civil war. "It's unbelievable to see what a massive number of weapons are in circulation in Libya. It appears that Gadhafi bought up all the weapons he could get his hands on. The arsenals were looted in the civil war, and now they pose a threat to the civilian population," McCullough says. Attempts to secure the arsenals at the end of the war failed miserably. The consequences are still hard to predict today.

Collecting Weapons

McCullough drives an SUV along Tripoli Street, which served as the front for months during the civil war. Today, the street is a continuous line of ruins, of facades torn apart by machine-gun and rocket fire. Residents have placed a random assortment of weapons in front of one building as a memorial of sorts. A rocket launcher, still loaded with a live rocket, stands by the side of the road. McCullough angrily shakes his head.

On the bright side, the first renovations are finally getting underway. A restaurant has just opened in a former ruin. The owner, who serves pizza and kebabs, has defiantly named it Stalingrad.

McCullough is on a collection trip. After he and his team pick up a Katyusha rocket from a container on the city's outskirts and load it onto the bed of their pickup truck, they will drive to a collection point operated by the militia. It runs the show in Misurata and has placed two containers for UXO in front of one of its bases. "It's next to an elementary school, of all things," says McCullough, as they move the war debris -- artillery rounds and another rocket -- from the containers and to the truck.

Then they continue to the day's final destination, an abandoned military facility near the airport, where McCullough points out what he means when he says that the country is flooded with weapons. Defused shells -- supplied by Russia, China, Bulgaria, Belgium and other countries -- lie in tightly packed rows. There are also phosphorus bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, part of a broad assortment of war material accumulated over the decades. The HI team is defusing the explosives, which will later be detonated in giant pits in the desert.

One member of the HI team holds up a device that was the nightmare of Western intelligence services: a very small anti-aircraft missile that can easily bring down a passenger jet. Thousands of the portable systems were reportedly stored in Libyan warehouses, and many of them have now gone missing.

Militias Yet to Be Demobilized

Behind the rows of explosive devices, the silhouettes of bunkers merge together in the shimmering heat. NATO bombers did a thorough job here, blowing up the ammunition bunkers with their meter-thick walls. Some of the contents did not explode immediately, but instead were thrown hundreds of meters into the surrounding area. "And that is our problem today," says McCullough. The bomb disposal team is finished for the day. It was a long, hot day. "It's crazy when you think of all the useful things that could have been done with the money this junk cost," McCullough says as we part ways.

As night falls over Misurata, shots can be heard all over the place. "It's Thursday, so there are many parties and weddings," an old man in a pastry shop says reassuringly in broken English. None of the customers reacts to the shots, which keep hammering away in the distance. The celebratory gunfire has caused many accidents, prompting the newly elected government to launch programs to collect weapons. Indeed, demobilizing the militias remains one of the hottest topics among Libyans.

The old man has also heard about the government's weapons-collection programs. "I saw someone handing in a tank on television," he says with a smile. "He probably has another one behind his house."

Hasam Attaeb makes it clear that his AK-47 isn't just for celebratory gunfire. The 22-year-old fought in the local militia against Gadhafi's troops, and he didn't turn in his weapon once the war was over. The militia members are still heavily armed, and Attaeb doesn't leave the impression that this will change anytime soon. "I will continue until we have total peace in Libya," he says.

In a few days, Attaeb will be sent out on a mission -- to someplace in the south, he says vaguely. He doesn't want to say more than that, but he does add that he finally wants a regular job so that he can feed his family. "That's what I expect from the free and new Libya."

When the revolution began, 30 percent of young people were unemployed. Many young ex-revolutionaries complain that nothing has improved. They are all men with weapons in their hands.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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