For world leaders with doubts about the need to ban cluster bombs, courageous survivors made a trip to Vienna to promote the cause.
Any government that believes it needs cluster bombs in its arsenal should meet 16-year-old Suraj from Afghanistan, a shy and soft-spoken teenager with a devastating story to tell.
Shortly after the US-led invasion of his country in 2001, he and his family were out having a picnic to celebrate the Islamic new year in a nice, tranquil spot in their village near Herat. After a fun day out, they packed up their things and headed home.
Unfortunately for Suraj, the day was not destined to end as happily as it had begun. Semi-concealed in the undergrowth was a small, yellow, canister-like object. The boy had barely registered its presence before he stepped on it.
The cluster submunition, or bomblet, exploded with such force that it blew away both his legs and a finger. It also instantly killed one of his cousins, and injured an uncle and two other cousins. Sadly, Suraj is hardly unique. In Afghanistan, the main victims of cluster bombs are boys between the ages of five and 14, according to the first ever global survey (pdf) of the human impact of cluster munitions.
Hearing the loud explosion, police hurried to the scene and rushed him to hospital. Rather than take him straight into the operating theatre, staff placed Suraj in the hospital's makeshift mortuary.
When his father arrived shortly afterwards, he was shocked to find his son, who still had a pulse, lying among the corpses. He demanded that they save Suraj. “The doctors didn't want to treat me and wanted to give me an injection to end my life,” he tells me, his sad brown eyes brimming with melancholy and the enduring remnants of a reluctantly forsaken childhood innocence. “They told my father that I should die because I would be useless to him.”
This revelation caused me to fight back tears. But, in Afghanistan, where there is no social safety net, medical care is underdeveloped, more than half the population live below the poverty line and two-fifths of people cannot expect to live beyond 40, there is a cruel but totally inhumane logic to their reasoning.
But a family's love is more powerful than such ruthless pragmatism. The region's top surgeon was summoned, and Suraj's father worked every hour he could and borrowed from family and friends to raise the funds for his son's four-month hospital treatment and the months of rehabilitation that followed.
In addition to the massive psychological trauma caused by his injuries and his near euthanasia, Suraj had a young boy's conscience with which to contend. “I blamed myself for the loss of my cousin and the injury of my other family members,” he confessed with downcast eyes.
Unable to accept that a child should feel responsible for a serial killer created thousands of miles away and dropped from thousands of feet in the air by people who neither see nor care about the consequences of their actions, I probed his guilt further. “Now I realise it's not my fault. It's the fault of the countries which produce and use cluster bombs,” Suraj acknowledges.
And it is for just that reason that Suraj has come to Vienna to lobby the international community – who were meeting this week to discuss a cluster munitions treaty – to ban these cruel weapons.
“[Cluster munitions] release up to several hundred small bombs, so-called submunitions, leaving a fatal footprint hundreds of metres wide. Within this circle of menace, cluster submunitions indiscriminately kill and injure,” explains Katleen Maes who led the team of researchers gauging the human impact of cluster bombs. “Although cluster bombs are supposed to hit military targets, research revealed that 98% of casualties are civilians – the overwhelming majority struck while making a living or playing.”
Suraj recalls wistfully that: “Before my injuries, I had a lot of dreams of what I'd do with my life. Now, as an advocate, I feel I can do something … I dream of a world free of cluster bombs and of helping survivors everywhere to lead normal lives.”
And Suraj is not alone in his quest to outlaw these weapons and improve the appalling conditions under which the largely forsaken victims of cluster bombs live. He is part of a group of survivors from Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia and Tajikistan who have become ban advocates and taken up their own cause.
I met them all at a training weekend organised by Handicap International Belgium to prepare them for their advocacy work, where I had volunteered to interpret for the Iraqi survivor, Ahmed, and to help out in the media training workshop.
According to Stan Brabant of Handicap International, these advocates were to “explain to diplomats, [the] military and the media why the Oslo process on cluster munitions is so necessary and how it should address affected communities' needs. More than us, they know what a cluster munition is and why it should be banned.”
Although each of the survivors had their own depressing story to tell of unnecessary carnage and human suffering, their commitment, conviction and determination – despite their physical limitations and modest backgrounds – to help other survivors and prevent more innocent civilians from falling prey to these indiscriminate weapons was truly awe-inspiring to behold.
None of them had addressed diplomats, stood before a TV camera or spoken to journalists before. One of them, Sladjan – a tough and amiable former deminer who lost both arms while clearing cluster bombs dropped by NATO in Serbia – had, until recently, cocooned himself in the loving and protective embrace of his wife and children. He barely left the house because he felt too ashamed and self-conscious of his injuries. But now he is ready and determined to take on the world and bring an end to this mindless devastation.
The advocates, along with the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), will have their work cut out. On the plus side, Norway and a group of like-minded countries launched the so-called Oslo Process, in February of this year, to hammer out an international treaty on cluster bombs by the end of 2008. After only a few short months, over 100 countries will discuss the draft accord in Vienna this week.
However, the biggest producers and users of cluster bombs – the United States, Russia and China – have refused to join the effort and have worked hard to scupper progress. “In return for them begrudgingly admitting a humanitarian problem with these weapons, they expect the rest of the world to accept that nothing substantial can be done,” says Thomas Nash of the CMC.
Opposition revolves around the argument that cluster bombs serve an important military purpose and that certain “smart” cluster bombs should be exempted. “Cluster bombs serve no real military function,” argues Branislav, an ex-Serbian deminer who lost his arms and legs while clearing cluster submunitions. “Most victims are civilians and I have rarely seen a soldier get hurt… Also, complete clearance is almost impossible. You can never be sure that a place is completely safe after it is cleared.”
Ahmed, the Iraqi who lost most of his right arm in an incident in 1991, is adamant that nothing less than a comprehensive ban and adequate support to survivors will do.
“Stop procrastinating, enough debate – we need action and we need it now,” he concludes.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 December 2007.