Living in Fear of Sporadic Blasts

APPile, left, and a local deminer excavating an unexploded ordnance used in the August war in Akhaldaba, Georgia.
PKHEVISI, Georgia — When August's fighting surrounded her cottage in this quiet village, Tamuna Kitiashvili fled to the Georgian capital with her husband and 3-year-old daughter.

They returned to find their home covered in what looked like flashlight batteries. The metal cylinders had crashed through the roof and lodged themselves in the floorboards. More lay scattered in the garden where they grow vegetables.

The cylinders were deadly cluster bomblets designed to tear apart tank armor — but which more often end up maiming or killing children. Representatives from more than 100 nations gathered in Oslo, Norway, on Wednesday to sign a historic accord barring their use.

Georgia was the latest country to fall under the plague of cluster bombs as war broke out with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, but the munitions have long been a scourge of war-torn places from Angola to Afghanistan.

Most of the munitions scattered around Kitiashvili's home have been cleared, but she still lives in terror of sporadic explosions that go off at night. "Who knows what could happen?" asked the 22-year-old mother, holding onto her daughter tightly.

Although activists are hailing the cluster bombs convention as a landmark achievement, the refusal of the world's two largest producers of the munitions — the United States and Russia — to sign on will limit its effect.

"These two countries seem to have a bit of an allergy to international law in general," said Thomas Nash, coordinator of The Cluster Bomb Coalition. "Of course, we're always disappointed that these countries choose not to be a part of the international legal framework."

Washington and Moscow say cluster bombs have legitimate military uses such as repelling advancing troop columns.

Stephen Mull, an assistant U.S. secretary of state, told reporters in May that a comprehensive ban would hurt world security and endanger U.S. military cooperation on humanitarian work with countries that sign the accord.

Cluster bomblets are packed into artillery shells or into bombs to be dropped from aircraft. Each container — which might be used to destroy an airfield or to attack massed infantry and tanks — typically scatters some 200 to 600 mini-explosives over an area the size of a football field.

The weapon, a descendant of the "butterfly bomb" dropped by Nazi Germany on Britain in World War II, was first used by the United States in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Similar cluster bombs were used by Soviet and Russian troops in Angola, Afghanistan and Chechnya, where leftover duds still inflict casualties.

Children are often attracted to these unexploded munitions, many of which are shiny metal objects the size of toys, sometimes attached to little parachutes.

The types of injuries inflicted by the weapons are horrific, often leaving the victim alive but horribly disfigured.

Images of young children hobbling along on prosthetic legs or lacking arms below the elbow are commonly associated with the aftermath of an encounter with cluster munitions.

More than 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs worldwide since 1965, one-third of them children, said Cluster Bomb Coalition spokeswoman Natalie Curtis. She said reliable annual casualty statistics are difficult track down.

At least 25 people — including Dutch journalist Stan Storimans — have been killed so far by cluster munitions since the Georgia war's outbreak on Aug. 7, a report by Human Rights Watch said.

The comprehensive ban — like those against biological and chemical weapons — would bar signatories from deploying the bombs or engaging in joint military operations with armies who use them.

Russia has denied using cluster bombs in the Georgia conflict, but human rights groups say both sides unleashed the weapons. Georgia has acknowledged using ground-launched cluster munitions near the Roki Tunnel, which connects Russia with South Ossetia.

But a walk through the sprawling Georgian countryside just south of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, leaves little room for doubt that both sides deployed the weapons liberally in civilian areas.

With winter fast approaching in this mountainous country, desperate villagers — having already lost the bulk of their harvest to the war — are returning to some of the most heavily affected areas in search of apples to sell at market.

They work in the fields alongside scores of demining teams, which are carrying out the delicate work of extracting live munitions in civilian areas.

As in most places affected by cluster munitions, the main danger posed to civilians doesn't come in the initial deployment but rather after the fighting ends and people begin to return home, said Ollie Pile, an operations manager with demining charity The Halo Trust in Georgia. The munitions were designed to be used against large numbers of troops and armor moving in formation on a battlefield — the sort of warfare envisioned by both the United States and the Soviet Union, he said.

But that kind of warfare has become obsolete, he said, and cluster munitions have outlived their purpose. "I find it kind of hard to justify their use in this kind of environment," the Iraq War veteran said wearily, driving his jeep along a heavily rutted road as children gathered to wave at the vehicle from the very fields the group is working to clear.

A deadly legacy

About 100 nations began signing Wednesday an international treaty to ban cluster bombs, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of people.

The treaty, adopted by 107 states in Dublin in May, comes 11 years after the Ottawa Convention that banned land mines and won the Nobel Peace Prize for campaigners. The following are some facts about cluster bomb munitions.

What are they?

  • A cluster bomb, or cluster munition, is a weapon containing multiple explosive submunitions. They are dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground and are designed to break open in midair, releasing the submunitions that can cover an area the size of several football fields.
  • Anyone in that area is very likely to be killed or seriously injured. Many bomblets fail to detonate immediately, and, like land mines, can maim and kill years later.

When and where have they been used?

  • The Soviet Union first used cluster bombs in 1943 against Nazi troops.
  • From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. military dropped an estimated 260 million cluster munitions in Laos. So far, fewer than 400,000 have been cleared, a meager 0.47 percent, and at least 11,000 people have been killed.
  • At least 15 countries have used cluster bombs, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Israel, Morocco, the Netherlands, Britain, Russia and the United States. A small number of nonstate armed groups have used them.
  • Cluster bombs were used extensively in the Gulf War, Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • The UN estimates that Israel used up to 4 million submunitions in Lebanon during a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who also fired more than 100 cluster munition rockets into northern Israel.
  • Russia used several types of cluster munitions, both air and ground-launched, in a number of locations in Georgia's Gori district in 2008. Georgia also used cluster munitions in the August 2008 conflict with Russia.

Deadly Legacy

  • One-third of all recorded cluster munitions casualties are children. Sixty percent of cluster bomb casualties are people injured while undertaking everyday activities.

Stockpiles

  • Billions of submunitions are stockpiled by some 76 countries. A total of 34 states are known to have produced more than 210 different types.
  • In March 2007, Belgium became the first country to make it a crime to invest in companies that make cluster bombs.
Sources: Reuters, Cluster Munitions Coalition