De-mining in Muhamalai : Crippling the buried weapons of war | Sunday Observer

De-mining in Muhamalai : Crippling the buried weapons of war

A canine takes the lead !
A canine takes the lead !

The visit of UN Special Envoy on the Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention brought the precision humanitarian operation to de-mine large swathes of land in the formerly embattled Northern Province back into focus this week

MUHAMALAI: Amuthan was only two years old when he experienced tragedy while playing in his garden in Muhamalai in the Jaffna District. There was a sudden blast, and he lost four fingers. “I was tapping the sand with a hammer when it happened,” Amuthan who is now 15 years, reminisces. Luckily, the blast has not crumbled his spirit. Amunthan uses the rest of his fingers to write and says life hasn’t been so bad despite the early loss he suffered.

For elderly Sundaram Selvarasa, the story is slightly different. While cleaning his garden in Muhamalai, he lost one leg, injured the other and lost an eye. He blames himself for the injuries that befell him. “It is my own carelessness which lead to this. But, it is good that there is now humanitarian demining being done, so that this calamity will not befall others,” he said.

Almost a decade since the end of the war, anti-personnel mines still remain buried in the soil in parts of the North and East, thwarting the return to normalcy post-war in some formerly embattled regions.

The global push to ban the use of landmines as weapons of war is tied to the fact that they keep killing long after a conflict has ended. Categorized as “indiscriminate weapons on war”, landmines do not distinguish between soldier and child; combatant or civilian. Some of the countries worst affected by landmines, where vast areas of land remain contaminated with mines, have been at peace for decades. But, the buried weapons continue to kill and maim civilian populations.

“Barrier mines and other contamination interfere with sustainable resettlement in these areas, especially, with the cultivation and fishing activities,” Sri Lanka Army Engineers Brigade Commander, Brigadier Amith Seneviratne told the Sunday Observer in Jaffna last week.

With UN Special Envoy on the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention visiting demining zones in Muhamalai last Tuesday, and Sri Lanka’s decision to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions this month, disarmament and decommissioning of landmine stockpiles is back in serious focus.

UN Special Envoy Prince Mired Raad Al Hussein, who visited the humanitarian demining site on Tuesday (6), said, he was very impressed with the efforts taken by Sri Lanka.

“There is such a great sense of ownership with regard to the landmine issue and political willingness is extremely evident.

The Sri Lankan Government is extremely serious about carrying out demining and I congratulate them,” he said. Prince Al Hussein further said, he is sure if Sri Lanka carries on with this fantastic approach, the country will successfully address the landmining issue.

“So bravo to everybody for doing such a great job,” he said.

Mired Al Hussein added that he was happy to be visiting the demining operations.

“Of course, it is difficult work, it’s time consuming, it’s labour intensive and costly, but very important for the lives of the people who live in this area and for their livelihood,” he added. The UN Envoy said, he hoped demining would lead to greater development and prosperity in the war-weary region and strengthen the bonds of peace in the area.

The UN Special Envoy also visited with amputees in Muhamalai, many of them victims of landmines. “I value their courage and we should do everything to keep their spirits up.”

Demining in Muhamalai

Muhamalai, which served as the forward defense line, separating the Army and the LTTE during the war, is the worst affected area in the Northern Province that is still being cleared. Currently, there is humanitarian demining undergoing in the area, with the Sri Lanka Army Humanitarian demining unit and other humanitarian demining programs run by Non Government Organizations (NGOs).

“A high rate of post war casualties was from Muhamalai, due to the scattered landmines. Therefore, we carry out manual clearance in the area, which is safer than using machines,” said Prabath Naranpanawa, Operations Officer of SHARP humanitarian demining program.

There had been no casualties reported from the demining area assigned to them so far, but it was still risky work, Narapanawa said.

“This area has P4 MK 1 landmines and Rangan 99 landmines, which were created by the LTTE. They are quite powerful, and people can lose a leg if stepped on,” he said. Operations Officer of the NMAC, Dilshan Iddamalgoda agreed, saying Muhamalaiwas was the most difficult area to demine, due to the mine pattern and the presence of traps, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and other contamination from war.

“Muhamalai needs full clearance, whereas other areas only need to be cleared along the mines line,” he said, adding that a total of 11.21 square kilometers have to be cleared in Muhamalai.

Brigadier Seneviratne said, while the Sri Lanka Army had laid landmines to international standards, mines laid by the other party is scattered all over the area, which is challenging to those conducting demining. “We have pruners who cut the vegetation prior to demining. They have to kneel a foot or two away and very gently snip off the vegetation, to ensure the mines do not explode,” he said.

He further said, a deminer clears five to eight square metres per day but the warm temperature in the area is difficult for the people.

“When using canines for detection, we have to start around 8 30 in the morning,” he said. Brigadier Seneviratne explained, Sri Lanka Army Humanitarian demining unit conducts humanitarian demining, mines education and stock pile destruction.

Further, they carry out demining in line with the three methods accepted internationally.

Namely, manual, mechanical and canine mine detection. “Demining in Muhamalai commenced in September 2014.

A total of 991,404 square metres have to be cleared, of which 95,942 square metres are cleared at the moment. 6,441 anti-personnel mines, including P4 MK 1 were found in the area,” he said.

The Brigadier said some of the cleared areas are already handed over for cultivation process, and Sri Lanka anticipates to complete its demining process by 2020.

Brigadier Seneviratne said, so far there was only one casualty recorded from Muhamalai in the de-mining process. “In 2017, a de-miner damaged two fingers.

When we conducted an investigation, we found that he had grabbed the fuse of the landmine the wrong way. We then educated the others, to prevent this from repeating,” he said.

Women in de-mining

SHARP has a team of female deminers, comprising war widows and mothers who were in need of a livelihood to support their families.

“There is a team of female medics,especially in attendance for their welfare,” said Narapanawa.

Rasikanthan Logini (36) was one such female deminer. Widowed in 2008, she was working as a labourer to provide a livelihood for herself and her two children, before joining the humanitarian demining project.

“I have been here for the last three months. We only have to identify the mines, so it’s safe to work here. I have two children, eight and 13 years old to maintain. Therefore, I am happy and thankful to work here,” she said. Logini said, there were 11 females working in the site. Vahirawan Nukithathethy is another deminer, who is supporting her daughter and husband through this income. Originally from Mannar, her family had gone through hardship earlier on. “We are happy now. It is still a little difficult, but we are surviving on this salary,” she said.