landmine survivors lebanon 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Every Wednesday evening, an unexceptional sports complex in Lebanon's third largest city, Sidon, plays host to an exceptional event: "The Landmine Survivors."
A soccer team like no other, Landmine Survivors is made up of players who are amputees due to accidents involving land mines.
"We're the only team in the whole world," Bachir Khalek, a professor of physical education at the Lebanese University and the Landmine Survivors' coach tells The Media Line at a recent practice.
The players represent all ages and come from across Lebanon. Apart from a love of the game, the only thing they have in common is that they each took one unfortunate step at some point in their lives, triggering one of the many mines left in the ground from the country's numerous wars and conflicts.
Forty-two-year-old Muhammad el-Hajj's mine was one left from Lebanon's 15-year civil war. He lost his leg in Beirut in 1992.
Ali Srour, 19, was injured by from an Israeli mine in the south of Lebanon. The IDF withdrew in 2000, but the border area near Ali's home village is still heavily contaminated with mines.
"When I stepped over it, it was a huge explosion," Srour tells The Media Line in his Beirut living room prior to practice. "It was a shock."
He lost his leg in 2001, near his village of Aita a-Sha'ab next to the Israeli border. "I fell down, looked directly at my leg and it was amputated. Then the doctor cut off my shin because he was afraid of gangrene."
At about 4 p.m. every Wednesday, Srour packs his soccer bag and leaves his apartment in south Beirut on his weekly pilgrimage to play ball, taking a combination of public taxis and mini-vans to Sidon, about 40 kilometers to the south.
In Sidon, he joins 11 other amputees - all with weekly pilgrimages of their own - on the soccer pitch. As there are no other teams like them, they often scrimmage against themselves.
Despite their limited numbers, and the lack of teams to play against, the action on the pitch is fierce. These players have been through years of physiotherapy and are well accustomed to their prosthetic limbs, so the speed and skill of play is not unlike what one would see with able-bodied players. Tempers flair, spirits are high and when goals are scored, arms shoot up in jubilation or fall in despair.
"I come also to be able to meet my land mine survivor friends," Hajj tells The Media Line. "We can express ourselves in sport and share our problems. This is really helpful for us."
"Football helps me keep my weight regulated, which is really crucial for me because I have had two amputations," says Hussein Ghandour, the team's 29-year-old goalkeeper, who lost both his right arm and right leg to a land mine. "Gaining weight causes serious problems for my balance."
Members of the Survivor's soccer squad find inspiration and common cause in the shared experience of being disabled by land mines and overcoming that disability.
"The theme of this team is turning disability into ability," says Srour. "We want to send a message from this team that we can, despite the disability, practice our life normally. We can do sports. We can do whatever we want."
All of the team members are victims of conventional mines. But since the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, there's a new danger scattered on the Lebanese soil: cluster bombs, small bomblets dropped over vast swaths of Lebanon by Israel during the war.
Since the 2006 war, cluster bombs alone have killed some 100 Lebanese and disabled almost 400 - a grisly statistic capable of creating not only a team for the Land Mine Survivors to play against, but an entire league.
"Having a football team of mine survivors is something that is quote unquote "good," but we don't want to have more survivors," says Aoun. "Unfortunately from how we see things, we are going to have cluster bomb survivors and hopefully we'll be able to integrate them again into society, and football is one of the options.
The Land Mine Survivors team has become an effective tool in raising awareness about land mines, playing soccer matches with able-bodied teams ranging from the diplomatic corps to teachers unions.
Srour doesn't plan to stop there. This fall, he graduates from law school.
"I'm planning to work with the UN and I'm gonna focus on the land mine matters," he says. "I think I could defend our rights in the future to live with no land mines."
The weekly practice comes to an end with the usual aches and pains. Hajj sits on a bench and removes his prosthesis with a long, satisfied moan. He unwraps the stump of his leg, rubs it with cream and rebandages it.
"The prosthesis hurts our legs because the bottom of the amputation grates with the surface of the prosthesis so we get injured," explains Srour. "It's painful, it's really painful."
The team change out of their gear and each of them takes his prosthesis on his lap and changes the sports sock on the plastic foot, replacing it with a regular sock and shoes.
Despite the aches and pains, Ali and his teammates know they will be back next week.
"I think the land mine accident gave me more push," Srour says. "I've decided to go on, to move on, to continue my life so normally. To keep doing what I've always done."