Turn left at the abandoned tank

When I was given directions the first time I visited this office, when they said ‘abandoned tank’ I didn’t realise they actually DID mean an armoured tank!

Excellent – more field time this week – well kind of…

I managed to make it out of my office yet again, to visit another of our provinces. Making it as far as the compound I then made the fatal error – instead of getting in my car and driving to the minefields – of switching on my computer to just ‘quickly’ check emails!

I never did make it to the minefield in the end but even so ‘a change is as good as a rest’ apparently and actually working in an office which is not my usual office does seem to make me a little more productive.

My original plan was to visit our road clearance teams. Actually I say ‘clearance’ but what we do a lot of here in Angola is ‘Road Threat Reduction’ which is not like mineclearance where we dig out every single metal signal from the ground but instead we drive down roads in a huge armoured truck dragging heavy trailers.

The concept is simple – a heavy weight on top of a landmine activates it so we drive over suspected roads with something very very heavy!

The problem we have had recently is actually getting these trailers onto some of the roads. We are just coming out of the rainy season during which bridges have collapsed and roads washed away meaning we simply can’t access where we need to get to.

So we have a back up plan…it involves a man and a wheelbarrow. I know I know…hugely technical!

This concept is more like our standard mineclearance but adapted for roads where the danger is from anti tank mines (so you can walk over these mines but the weight of a vehicle would set them off).

We send a man with a huge metal detector strapped to a wheelbarrow down the road and when the detector finds a metal signal in the ground a couple of deminers come and dig down to investigate whether it is a mine or not.

Simple but effective!

All this goes on in Bie province which is way out east from my usual home town. Bie is where we started our clearance in Angola, back in 1994. We stayed throughout the war and such is the enormity of the landmines problem that we are still clearing the province to this day.

What is now tarmac road, when we arrived in ’94 was a battle ground – with the middle of the street dividing Government troops one side, guerilla forces the other

Chatting with my staff here is fascinating. Most of them worked with us during the war and they describe the provincial capital being divided down the middle of the town with Government troops on one side of the street and the guerilla forces on the other. You can almost imagine a thick painted line down the centre of the road.

Our first emergency tasks when we arrived in ’94 were to create safe land for refugee camps to be built on. Visiting these sites now they are unrecognisable from the old photos adorning our office walls. Now they are markets, schools and hospitals!

With work still to be done it would be incredible to revisit in another 5 or 10 years time and see just how different again this town is.

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The most dangerous landmine in the world?

I have never taken the work of my deminers for granted. Having done the job myself – albeit briefly – their painstaking dangerous work is something to be held in the highest regard.

Now though, having arrived in Angola, my admiration has reached new levels.

This is a PPMiSr….a nasty anti personnel mine made in Czechoslovakia:

Close up PpMiSr hidden by leaves, you can just see the  metal lid of the mine.

With small pieces of metal sandwiched in between the inner and outer walls of the main body, when someone stands on the spike at the top of the mine it has a device which ejects it into the air and after a couple of seconds it explodes. As it explodes the metal pieces fly out.

Can you spot the spikey top of the mine? Being unable to spot them is what makes these landmines so dangerous to the local population who enter the area to cut wood or graze their cattle.

Closer up it’s a little easier to spot but still fairly hidden in the vegetation waiting for an unsuspecting victim.

In fact these mines are so dangerous that should one explode in the vicinity of someone it is essential that my guys wear specially designed PpMiSr protective body armour.

My hardy deminers hate it because it’s much more bulky and cumbersome than their usual protection, added to this these minefields are in one of the most baking hot and humid provinces.

My guys are working on minefields right now where we are finding these mines.

 

When the coconut trees hear voices, they will bear fruit

Remember the story of S?

After months of mine clearance this area was ready for the first families to start returning. The resettlement began at the tail end of 2010 and this week I went back to see how it was progressing. The change to the area is absolutely unbelievable…

After having a drive around I stopped and got out my car to take a closer look at a couple of guys forging through thick vegetation on the oldest looking tractor I have ever seen with a look of sheer determination on their faces!

As I stood there an old man on a bicycle approached me.

“Good morning madam” he addressed me in perfect English. “Good morning I replied”.

“What are you doing”, he asked – a perfectly reasonable question I suppose seen as how not many white women come up into these parts.

Momentarily taken aback by his fluency in English, I explained my job and that we had just done mine clearance in the area so I was coming back to check progress. He solemnly informed me that he was from this area and 20 years ago had been displaced during the fighting. He asked would I like to see his house.

“Absolutely”, I told him. I jumped in my car and tailed him a few hundred metres down the track.

Then he told me his story…

VK is 72 years old, married for more than 50 years he has 3 grown up children. Before the war they all lived together in this house built in 1931 by his grandfather.

They led a very comfortable life. His father was a successful businessman who travelled all over South Asia for his work. He often returned with exotic and exciting gifts from his travels and many times brought mango saplings back to plant in their garden.

Plentiful trees in your garden are particularly important out here, not only can the fruit be sold to generate an income but equally important is the shade the trees provide during the long hot summers.

Over the years VK’s father brought back more than 10 different varieties of mango tree and before long had negotiated to sell as many mangoes as they could grow, every year making $500 just from the fruit growing in their garden.

Over the years VK’s father died and his own family grew up in the house. VK opened a shop and the mango trees continued to flourish.

In 1990 the war intensified in this area and the entire family was hurriedly forced to grab what they could carry and flee their home. Leaving pretty much everything behind, VK locked one room in his house (the prayer room) and fled.

Having spent the next 20 years moving constantly and mostly living with relatives, last month VK was told he could return to his land.

VK’s overgrown house. Built in 1931 by his grandfather, the roof remains over just 2 of the rooms. In the background (far left) stands the last remaining mango.

Needless to say after 20 years the contents have all but gone, the roof remains over just 2 of the rooms and his shop is just a shell. But VK has hope and determination.

Each morning he takes the 1 hour bus ride north, collects his bicycle from a relative’s house close by and cycles up to his property. He has hired some labourers to help him cut through the thick vegetation and start repairing the house.

Keen to show me his house we pushed our way through the vegetation along a secret path he has created behind his shop – so the thieves can’t find their way in and steal from him he tells me – as we walked around the destroyed rooms as he pointed out what was the kitchen, the bedroom and the prayer room (amazingly still locked!)

.           The secret path…

He is too old now he told me to run his shop but he plans to rebuild their home and eventually the family will return. I asked him was he sad about the state of the house and he told me he expected after so long away that little would remain but the thing he was most saddened by was that all but 1 of his father’s mango trees had been cut down for firewood.

“What will we do for shade in the summer now?” he asked.

He pointed to the coconut trees telling me that right now there are no coconuts because all the people moved away. Thinking he meant because no-one had been looking after the trees he said no, it’s because they need to hear the people’s voices before they grow coconuts. I must have looked completely bemused as he smiled and just said…“you’ll see when the people return and the trees hear their voices, they will start to bear fruit once more”.

This was once a bedroom… There’s a lot of work to be done to restore this beautiful house to its former glory but VK is determined.

There is a lot of work to be done here, it will be expensive and VK is not exactly a young man! When I asked him why does he not simply remain in the new house they live in down in the south of Jaffna he told me he will come back because this was his father’s house and before that his grandfather’s house.

He wants to die here so his soul can rest here, just like his father and grandfather have done before him.

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….!

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!