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.