Sinking under paper mountain

Sometimes my job is just like any other office job anywhere in the world!

Today has been spent slowly trawling our way through an absolute beast of a mountain of paperwork. We are currently going through monster expansion in Kilinochchi….from 200 to nearly 800 staff.

I have pretty much moved down from Jaffna full time now to help with the expansion. My jobs – training and logistics.

The logistics side I rather enjoy.

Remember my brief stint in construction in Mozambique? Well I’m reusing all those useful skills as I juggle office construction along with how and where to store our 100’s of metal detectors, tool kits, spare tyres and other minefield paraphernalia!

The car parking is no easier – more deminers means more vehicles. Maneuvering 4 ton trucks in an already bursting at the seams compound is no mean feat!

As for our 1970’s ambulances – thank goodness for the wonder who is our senior mechanic. How he keeps these things on the road is beyond me (these ones are older than me!)…

I have decided I am definitely an organised person though – aided 100% by my newly purchased clipboard! All I need now is a hardhat and I wouldn’t look too out of place on a construction site (or maybe I would just look like I was about to break into a rendition of YMCA?)

The training of new folk has been an absolute mission. Not helped by the fact the monsoon has arrived so I have spent many a soggy day sheltering under dripping tarpualin, nipping out the second there is a break in the downpour to test the nervous new recruits, only to find myself racing back to my little plastic shelter 5 minutes later.

We’ve had lots of ladies training with us this time round and it’s been lovely seeing these brightly dressed gorgeous girls donning their body armour and visors each morning.

Personally I would find their salwar kameez outfits very impractical kneeling down all day digging at the soil, but they are so graceful and comfortable in their traditional dress they could probably demine in a sari!

Our medics are good to go.

After several weeks of painfully jabbing one another in the arms with needles and finding my veiny white arms quite an oddity compared to their brown ones as I explain the concepts of torniquets and pressure points to them.

The training and testing has taken weeks and weeks so today really was a momentous occasion as we we finished testing the last of the deminers and the medics packed their trauma kits and counted out paracetamol!

Instead of soggy fields and building sites, we now launch ourselves into our mountain of paperwork to make sure everyone gets insured, gets nice new shiny boots and signs their contract.

It’s a big day for them all tomorrow – their first day in a real minefield.

I remember my first day in a minefield like it was yesterday….!


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.

Doing it for the girls

A few links of Misshelen in print, doing it for the girls…

Clearing Landmines – an interview with “Women on the Road”

Landmines & Life – on the website Women’s Adventure Magazine

(Actually also on this website is the story of a very interesting lady Moving Mountains)

It’s a real honour being both interviewed and having a story published on sites which lets face it are back to back with true adventurers and explorers. Make a cup of tea, sit back and have a browse…

And while we’re on the subject of Misshelen in print…HALO has just launched its new website which includes some of my case studies from Sri Lanka and Mozambique…brings back some happy African memories reading the Mozambique ones!

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!

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!

I’m on the move

I’m leaving Mozambique!

After 18 very happy months here I’m being moved to our Sri Lanka program so today I handed over my phone, said my goodbyes and ate some tooth rottingly over sweet cake with my fantastic team of guys, patted my dog farewell and took the (delayed, bumpy, chaotic) flight out of Chim for one last time.

I’ve got mixed feelings about my move although not having had much time to think about it up until now. In fact yesterday was a manic day of handover of work and last minute report writing randomly mixed with meeting my first ‘traditional medicine man (check out his headgear)!

My feeling is that it’s time to leave the job but not time to leave Africa.

Before I arrived everyone told ‘Africa gets under your skin’. ‘No’ I retorted, ‘not me’….

but it would appear they were maybe, ever so slightly, rather annoyingly RIGHT!

I have a funny feeling I might be back to this awesome continent at some point in the future but in the meantime it’s back to Asia for me!

I’m not 100% what my job will be, something similar to my role here…”same same but different” so to speak.


Daddy would be proud

Well Pops, it looks like I’ve entered the construction industry!

The news of severe flooding in Mozambique maybe hasn’t reached the outside world but we’ve had more than our fair share of rain over here recently (ironically after months of drought!) and not only is my the salmon shack in a serious state of disrepair but I now have rivers running through several of my minefield camps, leaking tents and seriously soggy deminers!

More annoyingly access to some of our minefields has been completely cut off from river bursting their banks. I never truly understood how a ‘flash flood’ could literally wash away everything in its path in a matter of minutes. I always wondered whether it really was possible for rain to come down in such force in such volume. I now confirm it IS possible!

At the end of each month we all come out of the field and have a few days admin. The demining teams go home for a rest and the support staff get on with maintaining vehicles, servicing detectors, repairing equipment and refilling paramedic kits. This month exiting one of our minefields was proving a little ‘problematic’ due to the fact a previously dry river bed which we used to drive across no problem, now has several feet of fast flowing water racing through it.

After a bit of um-ing and arh-ing, head scratching and something resembling a bad joke along the lines of ‘how many supervisors does it take to get a landrover across a river…’ we decided we would have to build a bridg. So we did just that!

First you buy as many sandbags (empty rice sacks will do) as you can get your hands on, then find yourself some unemployed folk who want to earn some cash to fill the sandbags with sand  

Then you take off your socks and shoes, roll up your trousers and start wading through the river dragging the filled bags across to create with 2 raised ‘tyre-tracks’ to drive across.


I made my (rather grumpy) bunch of deminers hand carry all the expensive equipment across just in case the bridge didn’t quite hold and I not only had to explain to HQ why my landrover was washed 2 kms downstream but also why it had been filled with $1000’s of kit at the time (not that I didn’t have UTTER faith in my bridge building expertise of course!).

Then slowly, slowly we inched across the bridge – or rather my driver drove and I stood on the other side of the river signalling him left a bit, right a bit to keep his tyre’s on the tracks.

I would have a photo of this last part but as he reached my side of the river he got rather excited about making it over safely, slammed on the accelerator and I ended up leaping into a bush to escape being run over by a rather relieved driver!

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step

Remember Felix?

Last week I returned to Felix’s village with a gift for him…a pair of children’s crutches.

We had arranged for them to be sent from the UK office to replace the worn wooden homemade crutches he had been using since his landmine accident in 2008.

Felix turned up to meet us with his father, after the usual ritual of hello’s and how are you? how are your family? and several handshakes we got down to the business in hand….to hand over Felix’s new crutches!

He had been given a plastic yellow whistle by one of our supervisor’s (we use them in the minefield to signal break times) and he inexplicably stood with it proudly stuck in his mouth until his father whispered for him to take it out and let it hang round his neck on its fluorescent string.

We showed his father how the crutches could be extended in length as Felix grew older and taller then his father tenderly took 1 wooden crutch, laid it on the ground and helped his son feed his left arm down the shaft of the new crutch until his hand came to rest on the handgrip. 

Felix tentatively rested his weight onto his left arm as his father gently replaced his other wooden crutch with his new metal one.

The crutches are probably just a touch too big for him right now but in 6 months time they will fit him perfectly and of course it will take him a bit of time to get used to the difference in how they feel to use but even so he smiled broadly as he took his first tentative steps.

I don’t think for a second that this small gift will transform change this boy’s life. He needs a prosthetic limb. He could probably benefit from physiotherapy. He has a long way to go before life will (if ever) be close to normality.

But as Felix took off down the dirt track to show off his new crutches to his friends an old proverb sprung to mind…”a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”

A typical day 3

Pluck eyebrows in doorway of tent much to the bemusement of male Moz colleagues (remember Always be bothered? this is a classic example!)

Spend day driving through stunning mountains looking for minefields (ok so it’s a bit more technical than simply looking but trust me, not sufficiently interesting enough to write about!). End up finding mines in the middle of a village, a drunk policeman a bit too enthusiastic for the local hospitality (we usually accept a corn on the cob or a live chicken – he seemed to prefer a glass of bathtub-gin!) and giving a lift to a village leader and 2 boys tied together with rope on their way to the police station (these boys had been convinced by a local witch doctor to put traditional medicine on a man’s food which had subsequently killed him).

The police Commandante (remember him? Landmines & life) came over to welcome me to his patch of grass we had set up home on. I always get a bit nervous when I have to speak in Portuguese to an official and as he left he saluted then shook my hand.

For some reason I did the same!

I saluted him! What an idiot!

In an attempt to access one minefield we needed to rebuild an old colonial road in incredibly bad condition – even Red Wings struggled to make it through – so we walked the distance asking in the communities we passed if fit strong local men wanted to come and work for us rebuilding the road – literally knocking door to door or shouting from the footpath “hey you, want to earn some money!”

By the end of it we had a trail of 20 strapping young men snaking down the path behind us. It was a good feeling knowing we woRoad buildersuld immediately be able to put money into the communities we would later be able to hand back mine-free land to.

Did monthly accounts sitting in the shade of a mango tree in the police station front yard then in desperation of internet access to email accounts to HQ drove down to South African run fishing lodge in the valley. Ended up being invited on sunset ‘booze cruise’ with bunch of VERY outrageously behaved SA fishermen – whisky, tall tales from a day of sport fishing and lots of testosterone!

A most excellent and fun night! Left them to gorge on the obscenely large t-bone steaks and headed home to my wee tent-house.

p.s for more ‘typical day stories click here

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