This makes MAG’s already dangerous work even harder. They are one of the leading demining organisations working in Lebanon, alongside several others. All are supervised by the Lebanese Mine Action Centre (LMAC), which was established by the minister of defence to oversee Lebanon’s 840 contaminated sites. MAG has fifteen teams, consisting mainly of local people, working across the country, including on the Syrian border in the north east, an area previously occupied by ISIS. But the south is where they focus their efforts, with 200 deminers working across four different locations.
So far in 2020, they have removed close to 15,000 mines overall, which Stilin says is good, “although I was expecting more like 20,000 but because of Covid-19 it’s not going to happen.” The pandemic caused demining work to stop for seven weeks. Despite this, between June 2019 and June 2020 MAG teams managed to clear an area equivalent to 233 Wembley pitches.
In Meiss Al-Jabal, not far from Houla, I meet Sami Al Hajj, a farmer whose land runs parallel with the Blue Line. This area was one of the most heavily contaminated – LMAC estimated there were 51 minefields there altogether. The 41-year-old says a friend of his was killed a while ago after stepping on a mine. Everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed by these hidden enemies.
Last year Mr Al Hajj’s land was cleared by MAG and he now grows tobacco, wheat and olive trees in fields that once belonged to his grandfather. He points to his land from the dusty track where we are standing, his face filled with pride. “I can make more money now from selling my crops. I can invest in my land and control it and benefit from it,” he says. Per 1,000 square metres, Tobacco makes on average $1,000, while olive trees make $700 and wheat $300. “I know many other farmers around here who have had their land cleared, thanks to MAG. One day, I hope to pass the land on to my three children,” he says.
Farming is the most important source of income in the rural south, with 80 percent of local GDP coming from agriculture-related activities, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). But a lot of the fertile land lies idle – much like Mr Al Hajj’s used to. This stems from decades of conflict, when bombing forced farmers to abandon their land or contaminated it with unexploded bombs. A report by the FAO, published shortly after the 2006 war estimated that at least 25 per cent of the cultivated area was contaminated.