Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

What lies beneath

To watch mine-clearing in action is to observe a carefully orchestrated and highly trained group effort. Teams of clearers clad in heavy protective clothing painstakingly scrutinise each millimetre of soil with high-tech mine detectors. Once they have located a signal (a high-pitched squeal that sounds like the peacocks that roam the Sri Lankan jungles) they switch to low-tech tools—a rake, a trowel, or even a twig—to gently remove the soil. Then, with gloved but steady hands, they remove the mine, hold it with one hand and defuse it with the other. A coloured marker is inserted where the mine was. Tape linking the markers reveals the extent and the pattern of a particular minefield. In many parts of northern Sri Lanka, the tape extends for hundreds of metres in several directions, across farmland, close to schools and through villages. 

‘If all the correct procedures are followed, [mine-clearing] is not as dangerous as it seems,’ said Marc Farino, a co-ordinator and trainer with Fondation Suisse de Deminage (FSD), one of the organisations receiving AusAID support. ‘It takes us 15 days to train a deminer and we are very strict about quality assurance.’

The Jaffna region of Sri Lanka was devastated by war long before the tsunami hit the coast. In an interview with TamilNet, a news service of the Sri Lankan Tamil population, Professor V. Nithyanantham of the Department of Economics at Jaffna University referred to the Boxing Day disaster as ‘Tsunami II’ and suggested that ‘Tsunami I’ was the widespread destruction of infrastructure caused during the height of the military conflict.

Although much rebuilding of the war-torn region is evident (including the new Jaffna library that opened to significant fanfare only a year ago), the ground remains cluttered with bombed and burnt structures. But it is what lies beneath the ground that provides the greatest inhibition to progress.

An estimated one million landmines litter the regions of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Most were laid in the mid-1990s by both the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Apart from the obvious personal trauma of loss of limbs, deafness, blindness and disfigurement, there is the added problem of diminished household income, since many of the landmine victims are farmers who can no longer work their land.

Clearing the mines may look excruciatingly slow, but significant progress in the areas around Jaffna has already been made. ‘It helps that we have had good co-operation from the Sri Lankan Army,’ said Tim Horner, Mine Action Adviser with the United Nations Development Program. ‘They have handed over thousands of maps revealing the exact mine locations.’

Contrary to early media reports, the tsunami did not dislodge thousands of mines from their known locations. ‘Fortunately many of the coastal areas had already been cleared of mines,’ Horner said. ‘However, the tsunami did destroy a number of the markers indicating areas that have been cleared. This can be quickly rectified, as we have all the GPS positions.’

The bureaucracy of mine-clearing is itself something of a minefield. The UN Mine Action Program began operations in Sri Lanka in 1999. Renewed fighting between the government and the LTTE interrupted activities in 2000. Following the ceasefire in 2002, the program resumed. Today there are ten mine clearance groups operating in Sri Lanka. One group exists within the army. Others are run by various NGOs from Denmark, Japan, Britain, Norway, Switzerland and the United States. Horner is familiar with all these groups. Based in Jaffna, he works alongside the Tamil Rehabilitation Office out of the District Mine Action Office set up within the local government office. All mine-clearance activity comes under the jurisdiction of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Refugees, Rehabilitation and Resettlement.

Mine-clearing techniques vary across the groups. Some use heavy crushing machinery that scrapes away tonnes of topsoil. Others use trained detector dogs, but most use metal detectors and rakes. Sri Lanka is one of the 47 countries in the world that is not a signatory to the 1997 Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of Landmines. (Other nations that have refused to sign include the US, Russia and China.) The NGOs involved in mine clearance therefore have to balance their commitment to a humanitarian cause with the realpolitik of the environment in which they operate.

Removing and defusing the mines is only part of the program. Considerable effort goes into educating communities about the risks of landmines. Staff from the District Mine Action Office in Jaffna visit villages and schools to promote landmine awareness. Children are encouraged to act out plays in which a villager encounters a mine among the crops, while teachers receive curriculum materials and posters to help students recognise landmines and take evasive action. ‘The number of accidents can be significantly reduced if people are aware of the dangers,’ said S. C. S. Chithambaranathan, co-ordinator of the Family Rehabilitation Centre in Jaffna. ‘It will take a long time before all the mines can be cleared from our region. But the more aware people are, the safer it will be for them to return to their land.’

One of the problems facing returnees is that about 20 per cent of the land around Jaffna is still regarded as a high-security zone by the army. This land, belonging to an estimated 17,000 families, remains heavily mined and cordoned off with razor wire. Refugees who are able to return are entitled to a small amount of compensation from the government (about A$200) as well as some soft loans to help them resettle, but this allowance can be a long time coming. In Jaffna I encountered a peaceful but determined demonstration of returnees. They had gathered outside the district government office to protest that, six months after returning, they had still not received their resettlement allowance.

In the days before the tsunami, the lingering media story was about the grenade attack in Colombo that killed two people at the pre-Christmas concert given by the Indian singer and Bollywood superstar Sharukh Khan. The attack was the culmination of demonstrations from fundamentalist Buddhist groups who wanted the concert banned because it clashed with the one-year anniversary of the death of Soma Thera, an influential and conservative monk who publicly evangelised for a ‘return to pure Buddhism’.

Such tensions, which simmer just beneath the surface of Sri Lankan democracy, were swept from the front pages by the tsunami. As the emergency relief phase slowly moves into the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase, old tensions are bound to resurface. As long as the ceasefire holds, the mine-clearers can continue to defuse the devices that mar the physical landscape. Defusing tensions in the political landscape may not be so easy.   

Peter Davis is a Melbourne writer and photographer and a senior lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Pictures © Peter Davis


Similar Articles

The case for reconciliation

  • Kirsty Ruddock
  • 29 April 2006

Is Australia’s intervention in the Solomon Islands healing the wounds of the tension?


Joy and sorrow in Sri Lanka

  • Mick Sexton
  • 29 April 2006

As the old saying goes, joy and sorrow are two faces of the one coin. Well, the coin certainly flipped quickly for us here in Sri Lanka.