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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Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!

So…..I’m now living in Jaffna! Which for the ‘geographically challenged’ is the northwest corner of the island which is just off the south coast of India!

It’s not my first time in Sri Lanka – I worked out here back in 2006 – but it is my first time in Jaffna. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last 2 years you will no doubt heard of the Tamil Tigers. The peninsula I’m living on is part of the chunk of Sri Lanka the Tamil Sri Lankans were fighting for.

Now there is peace and the clean-up has begun. There are battle sites dotted around all over the place which have mortar bombs, grenades and all sorts of ammunition left lying around them. As for the minefields, the  density of mines here is shocking. 5 mines every square metre is not an unusual thing to see (in the picture below the rows of little stakes I am walking through are where we have removed mines).

I have more people to manage this time round (including several female demining teams which is very good to see!)

and the demining here is not with detectors but is 100% excavation – which basically means a deminer on their hands and knees with a scraping tool inch by inch scraping away the ground in front of them.

Its slow, hot, tedious work, the temperature here easily hits high 30’s and the humidity is making me melt.

I take my hat off to each and every one of them.

Plus we have lots of mechanical clearance here which i need to get my head around. I have been on a steep learning curve trying to understand about steering boxes, hydraulic pumps and bearing pins…!!

There is a still a very visible and active military presence here and we’re not allowed to keep explosives so mines have to be dug out of the ground then burned. Burning mines still makes them go ‘BANG’ so I have to write lots of letters to important army & navy commanders to let them know what we’re up to (letters are REALLY loved here…and everyone has a company stamp which they use in earnest!)

I am learning rather quickly that titles and correct addressing of military top dogs is incredibly important and during the numerous sessions of polite tea drinking with these guys I end up studying the pips on their shoulders desperately trying to figure out whether they are an Admiral, a General or a mere Captain…I have been addressing most as ‘Sir’ just to be on the safe side.

So basically I have my work cut out for me!

On the home life side of things I have ended up in a totally awesome house. Having just finished reading a book about 17th century Iran, my house is exactly how i imagine the Persian styled houses described in the book to be like – lots of dark wooden beams and ornate carvings – with all the rooms facing into an open courtyard.

Its a welcome world away from my Mozambique salmon shack and there has been a fair amount of late night star gazing up through my open roofed courtyard.

I have inherited a bike which the locals find absolutely hilarious and are really quite open about laughing at me as i wobble down the road. However tonight I came out of my office to find my bike positively gleaming and purposely parked directly in front of my office door…one of the guards has totally bought into my love of cycling home after work and he had polished it and ceremoniously placed it ready for me to jump on to.

My guys here are all very lovely and this is just one of the small but very thoughtful gestures which I have experienced since I arrived here.

I got a bit stuck in the mud this evening coming out of my compound gate and one of the guards gave me a very enthusiastic push…straight into the main road…bearing in mind there is a very clear pecking order on the roads here (bikes are 2nd bottom only above pedestrians!) I take my life in my hands a bit on each and every bike ride.

However I am persevering, in fact I rather enjoy my little home-time routine; my bike ride home to shouts of ‘hello lady’ from the bolder of the school children I pass, me grinning rather apologetically as I cycle the wrong way down the main road (I’d rather play chicken with the other cyclists rather than cross the flow of cars, motorbikes and rickshaws!!). A cheery ‘good evening ma’am’ from my slightly barmy but terribly sweet house guard Rex as I lean my bike against the wall and opening my front door with my ridiculously big key to be welcomed by my equally slightly barmy but terribly nice housekeeper Baba!

This whole place has got a very surreal feel about it, low roofed archways you have to bend double to get through, oversized door keys, seemingly slightly mad but oh so lovely people and tea parties to attend – it feels like I am living in Alice’s wonderland…I honestly expect to see a waistcoated white rabbit racing down the road my way to work each morning!

All in all jolly good fun!