Survivor and footballer Hassan Hourani refused to change his life even though he had a leg amputated after he stepped on a cluster bomb in southern Lebanon.
“My family makes a living from planting tobacco. I was helping my dad harvest the crops in our village when I stepped on a cluster bomb,” Hourani said as his football team trained on a sunny spring afternoon.
“I lost my right leg and hand,” the 19-year-old said, without emotion.
An artificial limb has not stopped him from pursuing his studies or his passion for football. Twice a week, Hourani, a striker, joins 17 other squad members for a gruelling three-hour training session in the port city of Sidon.
Like Hourani, the rest of the team are all cluster bomb and landmine survivors, maimed by ordnance left behind in south Lebanon or other regions during and since the 1975-1990 civil war.
On April 4, International Mines Awareness Day, the Mine Survivors, as the team is called, squared off against Western ambassadors, including Britain’s Mary Frances Guy, Aud Lise Norheim of Norway, and Australian Lyndall Sachs.
The Mine Survivors in their red-and-white shirts won 2-1.
“The football team was set up to help cluster bomb victims reintegrate into society and to put the spotlight on condemning the use of such bombs, which are internationally prohibited,” said Zeina Assi, who heads the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped.
The association partially funds the team, while Its programme for cluster bomb victims was established by Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s parliament speaker and a native of the south.
The programme itself is funded by the Norwegian embassy, which also provides prosthetic limbs which are especially designed for athletes, said Assi.
“This is a real challenge for these young men who are trying to transform their disability into energy so that they can, one day, prove themselves on international football pitches,” she added.
The programme changed the life of Mahmud Nimir, a 28-year-old farmer.
“After I lost my leg in 1997, I felt lonely all the time and I used to despair,” Nimir said. “Today, I can’t tell you how happy I feel, training like any other young man, and to hear the people in the stands applaud me.”
Team captain Hussein Ghandur, 28, also lost a leg in 1998 but that did not stop him from competing in athletics meetings in Algeria and Morocco in 2000 and bringing home gold medals.
“The Mines Survivor team is the first of its kind in the Middle East,” he proudly told AFP.
Large swathes of south Lebanon, where a majority of the population lives off farming, is riddled with mines and unexploded ordnance left over from decades of violence, Israeli occupation and attacks.
The United Nations estimates that Israel dropped one million cluster bombs in villages and fields in south Lebanon during its 34-day war with the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah in July-August 2006 alone.
Human Rights Watch, however, says Israel rained as many as 4.6 million cluster munitions across southern Lebanon in at least 962 separate air and artillery strikes, most of them over the final three days of that war.
The UN demining organisation says that 40 percent remain unexploded.
About 300 civilians have been killed or maimed by cluster bombs since 2006, according to the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre, with children — who mistake the bomblets for toys — accounting for most of the victims.
In Lebanon, the 2006 war itself killed more than 1,200 people, almost all civilians.
Cluster munitions contain hundreds of tiny bomblets which shower a wide area when they explode. But they do not always explode on impact, making them as deadly as anti-personnel landmines banned by a 1997 UN convention.
Israel also left landmines behind after it withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000 following a 22-year occupation. It has refused to hand over maps locating the fields despite repeated requests by international groups.