TEDxWomen speaker Lamis Zein is not your ordinary mother of two; she spends her days searching out and destroying unexploded cluster bombs in Lebanon. When the Norwegian People’s Aid announced they were looking for women to clear cluster munitions in South Lebanon in 2006, Lamis applied. Her background was not in demolitions; she’d been working as an English teacher in Lebanon. But following a hard divorce, she decided it was time for a change. The hope is for Lebanon to be cleared of these bombs by 2016, and Lamis and her team are playing a vital part in this effort. With unbelievable courage, Lamis is helping to make sure Lebanon will be safe for children to play freely, and as she does, her determination and selflessness continue to inspire us.
We’re thrilled Lamis was willing to share her thoughts and answer some of our questions!
In your TEDxWomen talk, you shared how your family advised you not to apply as a searcher to clear cluster munitions. First there was concern for your safety – your mother lost five family members in 2006, when four million cluster submunitions were dropped on South Lebanon – and then also, a sense that this job was not for women. You went ahead and did it anyway! Several years later, you’ve moved from working as a Searcher to Section Commander and now are the Site Supervisor for an all-female clearance team, and the only woman in Lebanon accredited to detonate the unexploded cluster munitions that your team finds. Has your family’s view changed in the intervening years?
The perception of my work changed in my family. Initially they were really worried with my choice, and considered the job too dangerous. But now they are confident that I am well trained in what I do and that the job is not dangerous if all the safety procedures are strictly applied. Both my mom and my dad are now always talking about me and what I do to their friends and family. They are very proud of me and what I do and especially of the position I have achieved after my divorce. They encourage me to continue in this work as they can also see it makes me happy and satisfied.
You spoke to how many people in Lebanon like the all-female team to clear their lands because “they trust in their patience, in their focus, in how they are working, steadily and without being afraid.” The work you do is difficult – and dangerous for so many reasons, but hearing you share about the focus of your team, we got to thinking about how hard it must be to be completely, 100%, alert all day long, while on your feet in 100 plus degree weather. It’s not like you can distract yourself for a few minutes by internet surfing and checking Facebook. How do you keep your focus?
It is indeed difficult, especially in the summer. We apply 15 minute breaks for the searchers after 45 minutes of clearance work, so we ensure that they can relax, drink some water and regroup. I also talk to them in these periods to make sure that they are doing okay, as when they are not focused, the work can become dangerous. We use lunch breaks to talk about family and other non-work related things, so that we have energy and motivation also for work after lunch.
We, like everyone in the audience back in December, are in awe of your bravery. Fear and doubt never seem to get in your way. How do you handle fear?
This kind of job does not need fear. It requires self- confidence, trust in your colleagues and concentration. But at the same time it is important to constantly maintain respect for the items we are clearing and the damage they can cause if they are to be handled in the wrong way. One should never get too confident or comfortable as that makes the work dangerous. Since working for NPA, I never felt that afraid of anything–neither in job or in my life.
You powerfully shared about the difficulty of being divorced in Lebanon, the challenges of “how society perceives divorced women.” “I had two options after returning back to my parents’ home – either to feel ashamed and effectively have no life, or persevere.” Clearly, you persevered. Do you see society changing at all on this front?
My parents played a great role in my life after my divorce and helped me. My self-confidence, both from my work as well as from my parents’ support, gave me the power to survive without thinking or being concerned about what other people in my surroundings thought or said. But without this support it would have been difficult.
Are the women on your team all Lebanese?
Women in my team are either Lebanese or Palestinian refugees living in South Lebanon.
When you head out to look for the cluster bombs what are you looking for? Are there tools that help you locate the bombs, or is it off of your eyesight?
We are searching for cluster munitions with the help of magnetic locators. They give a beeping signal when they encounter metal. The searcher then needs to slowly and carefully excavate the item where the locator gave the indication. As the locator gives the signal to any metal and not only metal in cluster bombs, this job is very time consuming: every signal needs to be investigated, to ensure that the land is cleared of the cluster bombs once we finish our work. On average a searcher thus clears 70 sq. meters of land per day.
You have the job of actually destroying the unexploded bombs. How does a “safe” detonation happen?
During the demolition, we apply the standard operating procedures that ensure that when followed, the detonation happens in a controlled and safe way. Demolitions are executed daily, destroying all items that my team finds that day. One hour before starting the demolition, I inform the NPA base, NPA Operations Manager, Regional Mine Action Center as well as people in the houses nearby and the municipality that a demolition will occur. Then the sandbags are put around the items for protection and to prevent any items flying out during the explosion. Fifteen minutes before the demolition, members of my team will close the passing roads, ensuring nobody will be passing once the demolition occurs. Some of the members will also go to nearby houses to ensure nobody exits during the demolition.
The Norwegian People’s Aid is an independent non-governmental organization. What does that mean in the context of Lebanon? Does the Lebanese government assist you in your efforts?
The clearance activities in Lebanon are coordinated by the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC) and operational Regional Mine Action Center (RMAC) in South Lebanon. LMAC is the Lebanese authority responsible for Mine Action in Lebanon and NPA has a good cooperation and coordination with them. As such LMAC/RMAC accredits the clearance organizations – ensuring that the work performed is according to the national and international clearance standards, issues the tasks where clearance should be executed and conducts regular quality assurance visits throughout our work, checking that we maintain high clearance and safety standards. Once the clearance tasks is completed, RMAC conducts a final quality control process, after which the cleared land is handed over to the population for safe use.
NPA’s vision is “Solidarity in Practice”. It seems that your team embodies this vision – as you shared pictures and stories of your team at the TEDxWomen conference, that solidarity was very clear. As a Site Supervisor, how do you build that sense of community? Does that come about by the nature of the work or through a conscious effort to team-build?
The nature of the work requires that one has full trust and confidence in its colleagues, so solidarity and sense of community has been with us since we started training, realizing that the team is only as strong as its weakest link. However during the years of working together we have also developed great friendships and we do meet for breakfasts as a group of friends quite often during the weekends.
Are you hopeful about the Convention on Cluster Munitions? (This convention bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions.) Does the fact that not all countries have joined – such as the United States – limit its effectiveness?
I am really hopeful about this new Convention and I believe it will save a lot of lives and prevent the horrible consequences we experienced in Lebanon in other countries. Israel’s large-scale use of cluster munitions during the summer of 2006, during which it is estimated that it dropped 4 million cluster submunitions into South Lebanon, contributed to the sense of humanitarian urgency that underpinned the Oslo Process through which the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted. Until today already half the world has joined the Convention, including my country. But even for countries still outside the ban – such as the United States – the effect of this Convention, and the movement to ban this unacceptable weapon, is in my opinion, huge. The weapon has become so heavily stigmatized that it is very difficult to imagine the U.S. or other military powers yet to join the ban actually using the weapon. But of course I hope and urge U.S. (as I also said in my TEDx speech) to join this Convention as soon as possible.