The Twilight Zone of Lethal Cluster Bombs
- By Matthew Collin
- Dec. 08 2008 00:00
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Robert Nikolishvili was pointing out the spot where a bomb dropped in the courtyard of his village home during the Georgia-Russia war when there was a loud explosion in the field behind him. Although he was injured by a shell during the conflict, Nikolishvili didn't seem worried. He simply chuckled ironically and continued talking. He already knew the blast was caused by a de-mining crew that was busy destroying unexploded cluster munitions left behind when the Georgian and Russian armies exchanged rocket fire across the nearby orchards.
More than 100 nations signed an international convention rejecting the use of cluster bombs last week. But Georgia and Russia, the most recent countries to deploy these weapons, were not among them. Some states continue to insist that cluster bombs have "legitimate" military uses. But when they detonate, they scatter little "bomblets" that remain undiscovered and are able to kill or maim civilians long after politicians have agreed to peace deals and soldiers have returned to their barracks.
The Caucasus war only lasted a few days, but experts estimate that it could have left thousands of unexploded munitions that will take months to clear. The bomblets caused farmers like Nikolishvili in the Georgian village of Brotsleti to the lose most of their crops -- their only source of income -- because it was too dangerous to bring in the harvest. "We're afraid to go into the fields because some of the bombs are hidden," he explained.
Despite substantial evidence, Russia completely denies using cluster munitions during the war. Georgia says it used them only against the Russian military and not in civilian areas. Campaign groups accuse both sides of not telling the truth and showing a callous disregard for civilian lives. Russian munitions killed more people, says Human Rights Watch, but Georgian bomblets have also been found in several villages. "Even if they both deny it, the evidence is on the ground," says Joseph Huber of Norwegian People's Aid, which is involved in the cleanup operation.
Four months after the war, parents in Brotsleti are still nervous about letting their children play outside alone in case they're attracted to the toylike bomblets. Nikolishvili said his neighbors were also worried that fighting could start again in what remains a highly volatile area, a place described by Amnesty International as a twilight zone. As if to illustrate Nikolishvili's point, as he spoke, distant rounds of automatic gunfire echoed through the village from the direction of South Ossetia. "This is how we are living," he said sighing.
Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.