On a spring morning near the town of Aarab el-Louaizeh in southern Lebanon, 39-year-old Zeinab Hashem sported an unconventional outfit. In a heavy vest, helmet, and visor that chafed against her skin in the warm weather, Hashem slowly swung a metal detector to survey the few steps of dirt ground ahead of her before declaring them safe. Her protective mine-sweeping equipment was clunky—but potentially lifesaving in dealing with land mines and undetonated explosives left over from decades of domestic and regional conflict.
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon fought a civil war, during which Israel occupied large portions of southern Lebanon and left hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines on Lebanese territory along the two countries’ shared 75-mile border. In 2006, a monthlong war between the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Israel led Israel to drop as many as 4 million cluster munitions on Lebanon, roughly 90 percent of them in the final three days of fighting. As they fall to the ground, cluster bombs release a multitude of smaller explosives over a broad area. An estimated 1 million of these did not explode. The deadly metal containers are the size of a can of soda and can lay dormant on the ground for years.
More recently, spillover from the conflict in Syria led the Islamic State and Nusra Front militants to temporarily occupy parts of northeastern Lebanon and leave improvised explosive devices in the areas they controlled in Ras Baalbek and Arsal.
Israeli soldiers retreated from southern Lebanon in 2000, and United Nations peacekeepers now oversee the small buffer zone—the width of a dirt road between Lebanon and Israel that acted as the demarcation for the Israeli troops’ withdrawal, known as the Blue Line. The patch of territory where Zeinab works is overlooked by an Israeli military outpost only a few hundred meters away.
When demining work in Lebanon began in 2000, roughly 37,000 acres of the country’s territory were estimated to be contaminated by land mines and unexploded munitions. Demining work was initially done by the military. Humanitarian demining started a year later, when the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a U.K. nongovernmental organization, began to operate in the country. Though more than 80 percent of contaminated land has been cleared, further work can’t move fast enough.
Today, as Lebanon experiences a spiraling economic crisis, demining efforts are just as much about protecting lives as they are about ensuring food security and economic development. Landowners want to use contaminated plots to farm. Others venture into contaminated areas to collect firewood or to find scrap metal.
But doing so is risky: Since the start of the country’s financial crisis in 2019, the number of persons killed or injured by mines or unexploded munitions annually has roughly doubled. In 2021, a total 21 people fell victim to mine explosions, six of whom died; last year, 22 incidents resulted in multiple injuries and one death, according to MAG. In February, 12-year-old Ali Hussein Atrash and his 10-year-old sister Fatima were killed by a mine explosion in northeastern Lebanon while collecting scrap metal to sell.
Since 2019, the Lebanese lira has lost more than 98 percent of its value against the dollar. According to the U.N., poverty rates have doubled—with more than 80 percent of Lebanon’s population now living below the poverty line. A collapsing banking sector has blocked most Lebanese out of their savings. And a dysfunctional parliament has been unable to agree on a new head of state for months.
Yet even as Lebanon’s paralyzed state crumbles, demining work has so far continued unabated, thanks to a committed Lebanese army, foreign humanitarian demining organizations, and hundreds of Lebanese deminers. On average, deminers earn $1,000 per month, depending on their seniority—a valuable salary under the country’s current economic environment.
Before she began clearing mines, Hashem studied social sciences at Lebanese University. When the time came for her to look for a job after graduation, she saw a recruitment ad from MAG. “They were looking for a deminer. The work looked different and interesting,” she told Foreign Policy.
Like Hashem, most MAG staff are Lebanese. In addition to Lebanon’s south, the organization also operates in the Bekaa Valley and the country’s northeast, in Arsal and Ras Baalbak.
After eight years on the job, Hashem’s son and daughter, aged 15 and 12, are no longer scared about their mother’s livelihood. It is Hashem’s own mother who is regularly afraid for her daughter, Hashem said. The work, she said, is often hard. The heat—especially in the summer—can be brutal under the thick gear. Some of Lebanon’s contaminated terrain is rocky and hilly and difficult to navigate. And there is always the danger of an uncontrolled explosion.
But the job has its own rewards. “I know that every mine or munition that I clear is one less explosion that will hurt someone,” Hashem said.
One man benefiting from ongoing demining work in southern Lebanon is a 67-year-old known to his community as Abu Ghassan. Shortly after the first batch of his land near the Blue Line was cleared in 2020, he began to plant the orchard in which he met Foreign Policy. His wife was sitting nearby, boxing peaches with the help of a group of women who escaped the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Abu Ghassan currently farms almost 5 acres of land and employs 15 to 20 Syrian agricultural workers. He grows 25 metric tons of peaches and a ton of walnuts per year, and harvests nectarines and vegetables. He is waiting for another 5 acres of his land nearby to be cleared of mines before he can expand his production.
MAG is one of a handful of demining outfits in Lebanon. They all operate under the umbrella of the Lebanon Mine Action Center (LMAC), which is part of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The army oversees and coordinates humanitarian demining efforts in the country—prioritizing areas to be cleared, allocating the work to demining organizations, and then conducting final assessments before declaring areas safe.
As army salaries in Lebanon collapse along with the country’s currency, lower pay has pushed up desertions from the force. Judging by the two demining work areas that Foreign Policy visited, the desertions have yet to impact LMAC and the army’s commitment to demining. But it is an added strain that will intensify with time.
What’s more, demining work depends on foreign donors, and international financial commitments for demining work in Lebanon have fallen from $19.7 million in 2019 to $12.1 million in 2023. The war in Ukraine—as well as donor countries’ domestic politics and broader geopolitical events—have partially deviated some donors’ attention and reduced support.
MAG’s operations in Lebanon are supported by Norway, the United States, the Netherlands, France, and Japan. In late 2020, the organization was operating 15 demining teams simultaneously, but by early 2023, the number of teams had been reduced to nine.
Thirty-nine-year-old Ali Tohmaz, who works as a field operations manager for MAG at Aarab el-Louaizeh, in the same operation as Hashem, said that lower staff numbers slow down his work. “We had to let some people go due to cuts in financing. There are mines to clear, and trained people wanting to work. But for now, we can’t rehire them,” he told Foreign Policy. He stood just a few steps from an unexploded anti-tank mine waiting to be deactivated with a stick of thermite, which can burn the explosives in the mine without detonating them.
Tohmaz started working as deminer in 2006, shortly after the war between Hezbollah and Israel. In early April, Hezbollah and Israel briefly exchanged renewed fire along Lebanon’s southern border. Tensions died down before fighting escalated, but the danger of a wider conflict remains. A new conflict could compound the workload of deminers such as Tohmaz.
Despite its slow pace, Tohmaz said he enjoys seeing the benefits of his work: “Every time you clear an area, you give the land back, and you see what can grow from it.”