BINT JBEIL, Lebanon (Reuters) -Like a small black football, it lies in the dirt not far from Haitham Daaboul’s front door in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil.
It looks innocuous, but a careless kick from a passing child would detonate this cluster bomb, one of thousands of unexploded devices Israel scattered over the towns, villages and hillsides of south Lebanon during its 34-day war with Hizbollah fighters.
The bomblets can maim or kill. In war time, they might hit guerrillas firing rockets. Now with a shaky truce in force, they lie where they fell, creating random minefields over wide areas.
“We can’t let the children go outside. There are many cluster bombs in the streets,” said Daaboul’s wife Nadia.
“We’ve told them to be frightened of things shaped like a ball, a plate, anything, even stones in the street,” she said. ” … The children are asking ‘how can we live like this? When can we go out? When can we have a normal life?”‘
The Daabouls and their four children are living with a score of relatives in a house they rented after returning to the shattered town after an August 14 truce halted fighting.
Bint Jbeil saw some of the fiercest battles of the war, forcing almost all the townsfolk to flee. The Daaboul family odyssey took them from one makeshift shelter to another around the southern city of Tyre and eventually to Beirut.
“Their life has changed,” Nadia, a slim 28-year-old woman in a headscarf, said of her children. “They used to wander all over Bint Jbeil — to the market, the playground, their grandfather’s house. Now they are caged in.”
Down the street, an unexploded shell lies on the balcony of a building overlooking a bombed stadium — it’s hard to imagine how Bint Jbeil’s 4,000 people can pick up their lives while so many deadly leftovers from the war carpet the landscape.
Children are at particular risk from cluster bombs, such as the one that was lying in wait for 10-year-old Hassan Tahini and his cousin in the border village of Aita al-Shaab.
“We were walking without paying attention, we saw something, but we didn’t know it was a bomb,” said Tahini from his hospital bed in Tyre. “We saw a little bit of it sticking out of the earth. We said to ourselves, ‘it’s a toy, so what?’
“We trod on it. It exploded and we flew two or three meters through the air,” he said. “God saved me.”
Tahini spent two days in intensive care at Tyre’s Jebel Amel hospital, along with his 12-year-old cousin Sikni, with multiple wounds to his small intestine, liver and stomach.
Both will survive, said Nasser Farran, the surgeon who has treated them and a dozen other recent cluster bomb victims.
The United Nations has confirmed 249 Israeli cluster bomb strikes across south Lebanon and says the bomblets have killed eight people and wounded at least 38 since the truce.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Tekimiti Gilbert, operations chief of the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center in Lebanon.
He said he had “no doubt” Israel’s use of cluster bombs violated international law which bans the use of such munitions in civilian areas. Israel denies using the weapons illegally and accuses Hizbollah of firing rockets into Israel from towns and villages.
The five-week war claimed 1,200 lives, mostly civilians, in Lebanon. At least 157 Israelis, mainly soldiers, were killed.
In Bint Jbeil, Nadia chain-smokes and says her nerves are shot trying to deal with cooped-up children 24 hours a day.
“Every time a plane goes over, the children are afraid. At any sound, they jump. They aren’t sleeping at night,” she said.
On the cement floor of a dark room, some of the younger boys play listlessly with toy guns, planes and rockets.
The stresses of war on families like the Daabouls are replicated among thousands of civilians in south Lebanon.
Among aid groups trying to respond is Save The Children, which plans to launch programs soon to teach children about the dangers of cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance.
“We also want to set up safe spaces where children can play, paint, do drama or sing,” said Ribka Amsalu, the group’s emergency health adviser in Tyre. “It’s a way for them to express themselves and their emotions, and to be children.”
Save The Children can also provide school materials to enable formal education to continue even where school buildings have been physically destroyed, Amsalu said.
The three-story school the Daaboul’s 12-year-old daughter Zainab used to attend on the outskirts of Bint Jbeil is a ruined shell, with all its walls torn away, revealing desks and chairs still laid out in rows in a third-floor classroom.
Daaboul’s music store was pulverized by Israeli bombing, like the rest of Bint Jbeil’s market area, now a wasteland of flattened buildings, broken masonry and twisted steel.
The 37-year-old shopkeeper’s home fared a bit better.
Clothes spill from a collapsed washing machine hit by shrapnel, but plates and glasses lie intact on kitchen shelves.
Dust and debris below a hole gouged in the roof cover teddy bears and furniture. The television set has survived. So has the framed photo of a youthful Daaboul as a Lebanese army conscript.