Friday, July 02, 2010

Sri Lanka: Tracking down minefields

Source: Mines Advisory Group (MAG)

"By doing our survey, we can make sure that people go home in safety and start rebuilding their lives. It is hard work; we are living away from home and working out in the field every day in the hot sun, sometimes walking many kilometres. But we know that what we are doing is important, and that keeps us going."

– Kumari, Community Liaison Officer, MAG Sri Lanka

MAG is carrying out an emergency survey of areas in northern Sri Lanka, to ensure the tens of thousands of people housed in temporary camps following the conflict can return home safely as quickly as possible.

More than 76,000 were still being accommodated in internally displaced people's (IDP) camps at the end of May1, and before they can go home their areas need to be surveyed for mines and other remnants of conflict, which had been used extensively during the civil war.

Around 4,000 people are expected to resettle in Puthukudiyurippu AGA, where MAG's Community Liaison teams are conducting non-technical survey. This is the gathering of evidence about landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) without the use of detectors or machines, enabling hazardous areas to be identified and prioritised, and low-risk areas to be released back to the community.

MAG currently has six two-person Community Liaison teams operating in northern Sri Lanka. The teams have so far released around 380 km2 of land (out of a total surveyed area of 542 km2) since May 2010 through non-technical survey alone.

So far, 2,292 families – 6,485 individuals – have resettled in areas surveyed and cleared by MAG since May and many more are expected to return in the near future.

Using non-technical survey to release low-risk areas also means that technical survey and clearance resources can be much more effectively utilised in areas where there is clear evidence of mine/UXO contamination.

A day in the life

Kumari and Ronees are Community Liaison Officers who have been working for MAG since January. Today, the team is visiting Theravil GN Division where, as one of the last battlefields of the civil war, heavy fighting took place.

The Sri Lankan Army took two months to capture the area, partly because of the number of mines and booby traps laid by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Driving through the area, it is clear that the houses and general infrastructure were very badly damaged during the conflict.

Ronees explained more about the survey process and what the survey involves:

"When we start the survey, we first see if there is any existing data on the area, any known hazardous areas. Then we talk to the displaced population by visiting the camps, to find out about what has happened in that area and whether they knew of any hazardous area before they left.

"We also gather information from the media and from the army about the type of conflict in the area. After that, we visit the area and soldiers from the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) guide us around.

"We try to visually confirm most high- and low-risk areas but sometimes it is difficult to get access, particularly in dense forest areas. We have to be very careful to use only safe paths as many of these areas are very dangerous. When we move about we enter our findings into the GPS unit, which also tracks our routes so we can see on the map where we have been.

"There are many old SLA minefields still not cleared, but the main problem is the LTTE minefields, as we have limited information where they laid them. The LTTE used landmines extensively around their bases and in front of defence lines.

"They also put nuisance mines and booby traps along SLA approach routes to slow down and demoralise the enemy. These are often the most dangerous areas as it is usually difficult to pinpoint exactly where the mines are. It is also very time-consuming to clear these areas.

"If we find a hazardous area, we try to establish the boundaries as accurately as possible and the area is then mapped. We also try and get a picture of the impact of the hazardous areas, which may restrict access to housing areas or important livelihood resources such as paddy fields or water sources.

"This helps MAG and the District Mine Action Office (DMAO) to prioritise tasks for clearance. After we complete the survey, we submit a report to the DMAO, which keeps a database of all the hazardous areas and then tasks a clearance agency to clear it."

Upon arrival in Theravil, we visited the local army headquarters and the soldiers offer to assist us by showing us some of the hazards they had found. During the day, we located two LTTE minefields close to, and inside, the housing area, as well as a house completely full of abandoned explosive ordnance. We also visited Redbana farm, one of the largest agricultural farms in northern Sri Lanka, where LTTE had laid mines around the perimeter.

When asked what they think of the work they are doing with MAG, Kumari said: "We are doing very important work for the people of Sri Lanka. Landmines and UXO are having a terrible effect and we need to clear them as soon as possible.

"I am of Sinhala ethnicity but I speak Tamil and have Tamil friends and I want to help the Tamil people. By doing our survey well, we can make sure that people go home in safety and start rebuilding their lives. It is hard work; we are living away from home and working out in the field every day in the hot sun, sometimes walking many kilometres. But we know that what we are doing is important, and that keeps us going."

The work in this article was carried out thanks to funding from AusAID, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, US Department of State.

Note: 1 Joint Humanitarian Update North East Sri Lanka (Report #24)
Reporting by Philippa Copland, Community Liaison Manager, MAG Sri Lanka
1 July 2010