In conversation with Zeina Saleh

Mines, the fragments of conflict and war, threaten civilians long after the guns and bombs have fallen silent. Zeina Saleh, who works to clear minefields in Lebanon, speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj for International Women’s Day as part of a series exploring women in international affairs.

Interview
3 minute READ

Zeina Saleh

Deminer, United Nations Mine Action Service

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Zeina Saleh, born in Tyre during the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 1990, and the subsequent Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon between 1985 until 2000, what was it like for you growing up in conflict?

I’ve experienced it all. I was born in 1984 so I grew up during the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. I remember I used to flee school constantly because there would be shelling next to my school.

Me and my family lived in shelters where we survived regular Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device attacks.

Then, long after the fighting had ended, and the ceasefire was in place, I remember being restricted from going to some places due to the threat of explosions from the mines that had remained. So it was tough. It is an experience I wish no one to go through.

In 2006, war between Lebanon and Israel erupted again, killing thousands of Lebanese and Israeli people. What has been the impact of the war on the landscape of Lebanon 16 years on?

In 2006, when war erupted again, we had multiple buildings fall next to our homes. I remember it was frightening because, at the time, my sister was visiting from Canada and we had my nieces and nephews with us, and so, every time we heard shelling, we carried them, but we didn’t know where to run to for shelter. It brought back all of those memories of me and my sister’s early experiences of war.

We have enemies laying there in the ground waiting for a victim.

People are very resilient in Lebanon but the danger of the remnants of explosives is still here today. Though the shelling has stopped, we still have lots of contaminated places, where people, including deminers, are getting injured. It’s like we still have enemies laying there waiting for another victim. So the impact of the war in 2006 is still here, and though people do not forget the psychological and physical trauma they went through, life has to go on.

You joined the United Nations Mine Action Service in 2013 which works in almost 20 countries around the world. What kind of barriers have you faced as a woman working in demining and how far do you think these barriers are changing for women across Lebanon, the Middle East and around the world?

People would say to me: ‘Isn’t it too dangerous for you?’. But landmines do not discriminate. Mines can be triggered by both men and women. It could blow my foot off and it could blow a man’s foot off. So long as I am properly trained with the right knowledge, skills and experience, it would not do anything different to me than it would to a man.

In Lebanon, we are not as restricted socially as other Arab countries, and so, I haven’t experienced many barriers socially too. On the contrary, I’ve been supported by my family and friends and I’ve been supported with those I work with too so I consider myself very lucky.

Landmines do not discriminate. Mines can be triggered by both men and women. It could blow my foot off and it could blow a man’s foot off.

I’m looked upon as somebody who is making a difference in the community. People sometimes call me a hero which almost brings tears to my eyes. It’s a job full of purpose. So it makes me feel very happy and it gives me that push to keep going.

But, yes, I am making a difference for women and other women working in the field are also making a difference. I have women who want to work as deminers say to me: ‘If you can do it then I can do it too.’ So we are all changing the mindsets of men and women. We prove that women bring nothing less than what a man brings to a job. I do exactly the same as what my male colleagues do. Even when I was pregnant, I used to go up and down valleys doing my job, so there should be no restrictions on women working in the field.

The UN has concentrated its efforts on increasing the participation of women in peacekeeping in recent years. We’ve had a woman serving as director of UNMAS since 2012 too. Gender equality in peacekeeping has come a long way and I’m sure it will keep improving.

In 2019, along with six other women, you were awarded the UN Secretary-General Award for addressing the gender imbalance in demining. What would you say are some of the challenges and opportunities you have had during your time working in the field?

It’s challenging sometimes. My full-time job is as a deminer but I also have a full-time job as a mother so one of the challenges for me has been trying to balance these two roles. But I am very well supported by my team. They accommodate my needs both as a deminer and as a mother.

One of the highlights for me has been this award. Having my work acknowledged around the world. Being able to spread my story so that other women are motivated to do what I do too. It’s an honour for me.

Seeing lands being cleared from mines and people being able to move freely is another highlight for me. Farmers being able to feed their sheep. Children playing on the streets. It makes me feel proud of what I am doing.

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the Mine Ban Treaty and, today, 164 nations have signed the agreement. Why does land clearance for mines continue to be important in Lebanon and around the world and how do you feel when you see wars breaking out in other parts of the world, such as in Ukraine, where explosives are being used?

Once war has ended, you still have these enemies laying in the ground, restricting people from being free on their land. I believe that the Mine Ban Treaty complements what UNMAS does which is to save lives. Indeed, the treaty is important as it campaigns against the use of landmines altogether.

I hope all countries around the world eventually sign the treaty to help make the world a safer place for people to live in.

It makes me feel demotivated sometimes when I see wars breaking out when you are trying to lessen the risks posed by mines in one part of the world, and then, in another part of the world, they are adding to it. You feel like some of your efforts are for nothing. Yes, we are clearing mines in Lebanon, but in Ukraine, you have all these new threats arising which the Ukrainian people will now have to face for years and years and years to come.

If you would like to find out more about women in peacekeeping, listen to the Seeking Peace series, from UN Peacekeeping.