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.

Back garden bomb

I want you to imagine something for a second…

So you come home having been forced to move out of your house for  a while, let’s say for the sake of argument  it has flooded.

All you’ve been wanting to do for longer than you care to remember is to go home, to check what is left of your house and belongings and to start fixing, cleaning and getting back to normal.

You arrive home and its all a bit of a mess, the roof has been destroyed, the walls need repairing, the garden is full of rubbish.

You start cleaning up. First the inside then the outside, the driveway, the garden. You spot something in the ground, it looks strange and out of place, just a lump of rusty metal sticking up right next to the side wall of your house.

You approach it and poke the ground then in horror you realise it looks kind of bomb. Not that you really know what a bomb looks like but you’ve seen movies on the TV and it just looks dangerous.

Ok so all this seems a highly unlikely scenario. And that’s because our country hasn’t just come out of 2 decades war.

But for Mr Sanmugat this actually happened, except that his house hadn’t flooded – it had been bombed.

Mr Sanmugat came to my office today with his wife, they explained they had been forced from their home during the war and had just recently returned. As they were cleaning the shell of what had been their beautiful family home, Mr Sanmugat’s wife spotted something sticking out of the ground in their garden.  Mr Sanmugat ushered his wife away and brushed the top of the metal sticking out of the ground. Realising it was something he should probably not be wise to fiddle with he had put a plant pot upside down over the top of it and come to visit me.

I followed them to their home and asking them to keep some distance away I went forward to investigate.

It was a mortar bomb, nose down with just a few inches of tail fin sticking out of the ground. Less than a metre from their living room.

Unbelievable.

The real victims of war

S was 18 when he was made homeless by the civil war.

His story is a sad but common one on the far most northern tip of this island. The war has ended now but the end to the fighting is just the beginning for the innocent civilians caught up in the last 25 years of conflict.

I work with S, he is one of my field officers – and a darn good one at that!

His family have lived on the northern coast of Jaffna for generations, with their small family home surrounded by palm trees and fertile land on which they grew onions, chillis and potatoes. His father had a good job working as a security guard.

In October 1990 life changed dramatically for the family. The war had been underway for more than 5 years but with little direct effect on S and his neighbours. The Indian army had briefly evacuated his neighbourhood in 1983 but after 3 months they were allowed to return home and their house was fairly unscathed. Life continued as normal.

It was not until October of 1990 when leaflets were dropped by military helicopter and a message was put out on local radio stating that some specified areas were to be immediately evacuated by all civilians, that it became clear that the war had just arrived on their doorstep.

Some left immediately, others decided to wait it out and see if the claims that the fighting was edging closer were true.

S and his family waited.

At 4.30am a final warning to leave was issued and a final drop of orders by helicopter. At 6am the army arrived.

They had captured the area and from now on this was a civilian no-go area. Then the firing started as the enemy approached in attack. S, his mother, father, brother and sister fled for their lives – with no time to collect their belongings they left behind all their belongings. With just the clothes on their backs they took refuge at a relatives house several miles away.

Little did they realise for some of the family that would be the last time they would ever see their home.

For the next 20 years, S and his family were forced to rent a house to live in, all their belongings had been left behind and when their neighbourhood became a military zone his father had not even been allowed to enter for his job.

S managed to get a job as a security guard in the main town but because he was earning 6000 rupees a month (about $50) he was above the Government threshold for war compensation. Slowly slowly they bought new furniture and clothes. They literally had to start their lives from scratch.

It was 20 years after this October fleeing when I met S and he told me his story. We were about to be the first demining agency allowed into the area where S’s house was. S was coming with us. It would be the first time in 20 years he had seen his childhood home.

What he found was heartbreaking. The roof was gone, the walls peppered with bullet holes. He told me the house had probably been ransacked for anything of value soon after they left. His sister’s gold jewellery would have been one of the first things to go.

The well was damaged beyond repair and there a tree  growing through his bedroom floor.

I asked S if once the area was eventually handed back to civilians whether he would return to the family home and he said yes probably but first the Government needs to make sure there are schools, businesses and land for agriculture.

Those who have already returned claim to have a miserable existence with the current complete lack of infrastructure.

I asked what about his parents, sister and brother. He told me his siblings have lives elsewhere now and wouldn’t want to return.

And his parents? They died in 1997, seven years after they were forcibly removed from their home. They never got the chance to return.

The former bathroom…only the toilet (far right in picture) left in tact