1970′s family camping

Watching an amazing African sunrise is a jolly good reason to get up at dawn

Maybe happy memories being relived?

Maybe rose tinted spectacles!

Either way I feel like I’m back on a family camping holiday this weekend.

Deciding I was spending too much time in the office I headed out for a few days to one of our remote camps. Arriving at the camp I felt like I had turned into Mum..unpacking the coolbox into a little travel fridge, taking your boots off at the door to keep the mud out, heading off into the dead of the night clutching your torch and your loo roll, boiling up some water for a cuppa ‘old style’….

The smell of a burnt match and a gas cooker always takes me back to our retro family caravan and Mum making a cuppa as soon as the caravan was parked up.

The only thing which I’m sure didn’t happen on our camping holidays…or maybe I just blanked it out…was the COLD COLD shower. I say shower when I actually mean a big bucket of freezing water and a plastic jug! Gasping as the water splashed onto my head, it was so cold it literally took my breath and actually gave me an ice-cream headache!

I’m still chilly now, an hour later, sitting in bed, wearing all the clothes I could lay my hands on.

It was good to be back in the field today though. We visited one minefield which we are close to finishing clearance of. As I was briefed by our supervisor he told me that just last week a woman from the nearby village had turned up at our briefing shelter carrying an anti tank mine. Literally walking towards our supervisor holding this huge mine in her hands.

The black curved line on the top of the mine is where the woman hit with her hoe

She was urged to put it on the ground very slowly and very carefully, which she did. The supervisor edged closer and saw that the mine had a huge chunk out the top of it – this woman was one lucky lady. She had been cultivating her land and hit the top of this mine with her hoe, the chunk out the top was where she had stuck the mine. I dread to think what could have happened if she had struck it a few inches to the right.

My supervisor led me to where this woman had found the mine – I found myself walking straight into a village. Incredibly this lady had literally dug up an anti tank mine in her back garden. Within minutes of standing at the site we were surrounded by inquisitive children. If this woman had activated this landmine all these kids would have been within striking distance.

.                  Young girl stands hiding behind her newly built house

We spoke to the local leader of the village who explained to us that this community used to live a few miles away but the soil was not good for cultivating so they had moved their entire village to this new site – unbeknownst to them rebuilding their houses on a minefield.

Marking off the dangerous area we moved some of our deminers to start clearance and are now clearing inside and outside these houses. Three more mines have already been found!

Days like this certainly make my job feel oh so very real.

The community are amazingly still building new houses on this land – on the ground you can see red stones which mark the edge of the suspected area.

From martini’s to minefields

After officially becoming a ‘2 second surfer’ (I stand by the fact 2 seconds riding a wave qualifies me), it’s back to the grindstone and back into the minefields.

This month I’m babysitting a colleagues programme in Kilinochchi – a town a couple of hours south of my usual hometown of Jaffna.

He’s taking a well earned holiday so I’m based down here for the month keeping an eye on things with his ‘handover notes’ firmly grasped in my hand.

Kilinochchi is still quite a new location for our Sri Lanka programme and so I’m happily back to my old African days of setting up anew! I’m thoroughly enjoying it and have got the familiar feelings of “logistics in the face of adversity” – frenetic days  bouncing from one challenge to the next!

Kilinchchi is one heck of an historical town. It was the last stronghold of the Tamil Tigers and as such was not only completely abandoned by the local population but was quite simply utterly destroyed being at the epicentre of the final push by the Sri Lankan army to defeat the Tigers.

(below) Kilinochchi War Memorial

To get here meant a drive down Elephant Pass which was an event in itself…watch this space for the blog on that journey!

When we arrived the town was deserted, save for numerous army bases dotted all over. Which basically meant not a soul was in sight…literally. It was us and the soldiers. No other international organisations, no  civilians…nobody.

 

Slowly slowly people are returning to rebuild and resettle.

Each week we are part of the huge Government programme to bring back the refugees displaced during the fighting. So on a weekly basis 100′s of returning displaced families are bused to a local school which is used as a transitional camp to record each family’s arrival and hand out resettlement papers. The families are then released to return to their ‘homes’. We go ahead of them to check the land is safe and to deliver mine risk education sessions.

When I say ‘homes’ however I mean it in the loosest sense possible.

More so than I have seen in Jaffna, here in Kilinochchi, houses, shops, schools and offices have been unbelievably destroyed by the fighting.

It’s hard to describe somewhere which has been so pivotal in a war.

Maybe it’s best described by Mark Stephen Meadows in his book Teatime with Terrorists; “Kilinochchi…it’s a village of bullet holes, mortar shell pockmarks and burns. A horizontal storm happened here. A rain of heavy lead has decimated this village.”

I can’t imagine how unbelievably soul destroying it would be to have been forced to leave your family home, full of belongings, photos, furniture…your life…to return to it many years later and find it not only absolutely void of possessions but commonly without a roof, windows or doors – and many times with trees growing through the living room floor.

For some families no roof means a big digging session in the back garden – having quick thinkingly removed and buried their roof underground before scarpering!!

For others its starting from scratch and on a daily basis I pass families sheltering in handout tents pitched in the crumbling remains of their family homes.

As if having to rebuild your home wasn’t a tough enough burden to bear – gardens, wells, latrines (toilets) and school playgrounds are littered with landmines.

Its a sad state of affairs when my daily minefield visits to check on my deminers becomes a walk through people’s gardens stepping over the yellow sticks which mark where we have found and removed mines. Scarily often a mere stones throw from a kitchen or sleeping area.

Children are forced to walk through the lines of minefield marking sticks on their way to school and we are constantly asking families to temporarily move to a relatives shelter while we clear the land around their tented homes.

(below) One schoolgirl’s dangerous walk to school

My biggest fear is that the monsoon is about to arrive. I saw a tented house made of donated tarpaulin and cardboard today. These makeshift accommodations won’t last a minute when the rains come. As anyone who has spent any time in the tropics – when it rains here, it really RAINS.

Yesterday I was approached by a local man pleading for help to clear the landmines from his garden because he feared for his children’s lives and limbs.

God – it was utterly heartbreaking. I felt rotten having to explain to him he has to wait.

Oh what I could do with many more men and many more machines…

But all this just goes to show where there’s a will there’s a way and there is certainly no denying these guys are bloody resilient.

After decades of war, having struggled in refugee camps and now returning home poverty stricken and to bombed out houses.

But when I ask people their feelings on their apparent desperate situation their answer comes with a smile and gentle nod of the head…

…they are just grateful to God that for the sake of their children their homeland is at last at peace.

Here comes the science

I often get asked ‘how do you actually find the landmines?’

It’s a very good question! It’s not like we can see INTO the ground and know where the mines are lying.

The answer is not a straightforward one but here goes…

The way we find the landmines depends on a few things – the location of the minefield, the history of the mine laying, what manpower or machines we have available. It can even depend on the time of year (rain is the deminer’s best friend!) so monsoon season makes for a short day in the minefield.

Not all our programmes use the same techniques either. So in Cambodia we use one type of metal detector, in Mozambique another type and in Sri Lanka we don’t use detectors at all!

Instead we have hardy men and women armed with a small scraper who sit in a trench and manually excavate the entire ground ahead of them. Every single inch of it! For 5 hours a day, every day.

In some places the soil is so hard packed it’s like chipping at concrete so the deminers water the ground ahead of them…another rather laborious process involving wells and buckets!

I’ve mentioned before that mine clearance is a slow, methodical, laborious process but this 100% excavation technique is in a league of its own. Patience is more than just a virtue here!

Digging through soil sounds like quite an aggressive way of finding mines. What if the scraper’s hit the mine for example?

The technique we use is a tried and tested method as the safest technique of excavating – starting at the bottom of your trench face and carefully scraping across and up.

Landmines are activated by pressure on the top of them so we scrape from side to side removing the excess soil as we go.

The deminers excavate the soil ahead of them and carefully hunt out the mines. But then what to do with them when we find them?

Normally mines are destroyed where they are found using a small chunk of TNT explosive but here, because the area is still controlled by the army, we can’t keep explosives so we have to (v.carefully!) dig it out then take it away to be incinerated!

This is the fun part!

One day your life will flash before your eyes…

….make sure it’s worth watching! (Gerard Way)

A long attention span is not a way I would describe my character!

The frustration I had working in the ‘sustainable development’ side of ‘international development’ a few years ago was the amount of time it took to see the fruits of your labour. Not great if you have a short attention span!

Now I work in the ‘aid work’ side of international development which suits me because it’s so tangible.

This is a job where I sit down at the end of the day and can see exactly what we achieved that day. That we cleared X metres of ground, metres of ground now safe for the local population to walk on without worrying if they will step on a landmine. We destroyed X number of landmines, landmines which are no longer a danger to the people of Sri Lanka.

A deminer clears land next to a temple. The woman to his left has been collecting water from the community well in front of the temple

Yesterday as I took my Director round my minefields it hit me that my time here in Sri Lanka is enabling me to be part of history in the making.

Jaffna has been at war for 26 years, in 2009 the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the LTTE (‘Tamil Tigers’). Whether you empathised with the Tamils or simply disagree with war, it is impossible to be indifferent to the simple fact that a direct effect of this long war is that hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict.

Now that there is peace these people want to go home.

A bombed out building, a pile of ammunition and a burned shell of a bus…remnants of front line fighting

This is where we get involved….before the refugees can go home we need to clear the land of dangerous remnants of war and landmines. In some cases areas littered with literally 1000′s landmines.

I am here at a time when Jaffna is at the hub of the resettlement process and my demining teams are laboriously demining huge swathes of land in preparation of the returnees. But the pressure for land is great as is the desire to return home as soon as possible.

Just yesterday I visited one of our minefields which we are due to finish clearance of next month. It is a vast former military camp which was used as a mortar firing base during the fighting. So far we have found more than 5000 landmines – and we’ve not finished yet!

Each yellow stick denotes where we have removed a landmine. The density of mines on this minefield is shocking.

On one side of the camp a man on a tractor was starting to plough through our boundary marking sticks and into the now-cleared land in preparation for planting coconut trees. This army camp had been constructed in his back garden. He had been forced to flee with his family and now he was back, desperate but determined to be able to provide for his family and return to some semblance of a normal life.

Sadly his story is not unusual but it is exactly why I am seeing history in the making.

When I first visited Sri Lanka back in 2006 I was solemnly informed by people in the south of the country that the north would never be at peace, no ceasefire would ever be agreed, no peace agreement would ever be reached. Never say never!

After more than 2 decades of a country at war, peace has returned and with that peace the people return. men who have not seen their own children in 15 years, families previously divided by a military front line, homes bombed out beyond recognition. But slowly slowly they return, rebuilding their homes, replanting their farms.

A deminer clears round a well while his colleague clears round the house in this family’s back garden

And as they do we try with all our might to stay one step ahead, in their gardens, around their wells, in their paddy fields…clearing the ground ahead of them.

It is a unique place I find myself in watching this unfold.

So when my life flashes before my eyes I think I’m in for a pretty good show!

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