Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The One Handed Fisherman

Today we visited the Jabal Aamel hospital in Sur (Tyre). We were given the name of Ahmed Mroueh, the hospital director, and wished to speak with him regarding cluster bomb casualties. The receptionist called the doctor, who was traveling for the day and could not see us.

In the emergency room, we are given the names of several doctors to speak with. We return to the reception area, and we begin to ask about the doctors. The receptionist turns to the young woman next to her and says, “Her brother is a victim.” The girl looks up and says, “Yes, but I'm sorry, he can not speak with you, he isn’t capable. He is in a very dangerous condition.”

As we are taking our leave, a security guard rushes over and says a victim of a bomb is just arriving in the emergency room. He looks at me and says, “You are in luck.” In the ER we go to the room where we hear loud moaning. A Reuter’s news team is filming a man on a gurney as doctors, medics, and nurses quickly transfer him to a bed. His right hand is wrapped in gauze so thick it looks like a giant club. His arm and shoulder is peppered with shrapnel, and his head is wrapped in a turban of gauze already saturated, and the blood is pooling under him. In moments, the man is transferred down the hallway to the MRI. He is moaning on every breath, somehow the moans seem to emanate from far away. A man who had entered the emergency room with the patient is distraught, pacing back and forth, up and down the hall, uncertain where to go or what to do. Finally he backs into a corner his eyes darting from person to person. Someone gives him a cigarette, and I put a hand on his shoulder. He speaks to me in English as tears well up in his eyes, “My brother is a fisherman, and a bomb became entangled in his net.” My understanding is that he was in a boat nearby when the explosion occurred. “He will lose his hand”, the brother says, “He is just a fisherman, trying to provide for his family, four children...four children…what is he supposed to do?” he said, dragging quickly on his cigarette. “I want people to know, I what you to show people what this is. I want people to know…” his voice trailed off and he walked quickly back down the hallway. It reminded me of a story I heard in the village of Blida a week earlier. We were shown the room where a tank shell had penetrated the ceiling, amputating the legs of an elderly taxi driver as he slept. The blood was still on the floor. When we stepped outside, we were shown the man’s taxi, demolished by a second tank shell. It was like a cruel, sick joke- a taxi driver without legs, a fisherman without a hand.

Five minutes later, the doctor who examined the MRI sits with us. He says the man is unlikely to survive, depending on how much shrapnel can be removed from his brain. He also has a collapsed lung, and yes, his hand is to be amputated. He speaks in even tones, without emotion, as he takes a slow drag on a cigarette. He says the hospital is seeing the worst trauma cases in the region, usually 2 or 3 victims every day since the start of the war. They are mostly children and young men, “active people” he says, “workers”. Most suffer multiple traumas to the head, torso, and limbs. I ask how it was to deal with these injuries on a daily basis, and he said he was used to seeing such things. As an ICU doctor, car accidents, industrial accidents, it was normal. “But”, I say, "How do you deal with the fact that these injuries are not accidents, but purposely inflicted by other human beings?" He shrugs and says, “before this war started we were still treating cluster bomb victims from the last war.”

So far, the UN has identified 450 cluster bomb sites and this number is climbing daily. They estimate that it will take from 12 to 15 months to clean up. An independent group in Lebanon, clearing unexploded ordinance in the south from the last war, estimates that it may take 10 years to clean up. If Vietnam is any indication, children will be dying from unexploded ordinance for decades to come. Currently, the United States is opening an inquiry into the use of American made cluster bombs in Lebanon. Apparently, the United States had undisclosed agreements with Israel restricting when cluster munitions can be employed. The hypocrisy of this is that the United States does not hold itself to the same norms and drops cluster bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan whenever it deems it a military necessity.

Much has been made of the fact that Hizbullah fired 4000 rockets into northern Israel. In Haaretz on Sept 8th a reservist artillery officer estimated that the Israel army fired up to 160,000 shells into Lebanon, including several hundred cluster bombs. The majority of cluster munitions were fired in the last 72 hours of the conflict. These munitions are notorious for failure (the failure rate for American cluster bombs is estimated at 25%), meaning the areas where they are dropped become literal mine fields. Dropping them in civilian areas ensure many civilian casualties. To date, they have been found on soccer fields, in homes and schools, on hospital grounds, suspended in tree limbs in orange groves, and now, in fishermen’s nets. Often, the one who finds them is not "in luck". Undoubtedly, there will be many more stories of legless taxi drivers, one-armed farmers, and children maimed for life.