A Woman’s Courage: demining work

Raisa Wickrematunge, in The Sunday Leader, May 2011

Pic by Azeez

Late last year The Sunday Leader visited Mahiyankulam to find out more about the de-mining process. It was like entering a different world. Moving through the thick forest, along the demarcated safe lanes, they materialised. The first things you spotted were bright protective jackets and  helmets. The de-miners were busily occupied, gingerly lifting the mines and disarming them. They do this every day, from 9 am to 1.30 pm.As we moved around the Mahiyankulam site, one thing stood out surprisingly, quite a few of the de-miners were female. The project manager of the Horizon India de-mining team, Colonel P.M. Meena explained that a few had lost family members in the war, and had subsequently joined the team. They smiled at us shyly, slight figures in heavy protective gear, before going back to work.

One year later, and Horizon is still clearing villages. At present, two of their teams are deployed in Mannar, and another two in Vavuniya, team leader Narendra said. Each team at Horizon has five female de-miners. All of them are volunteers, he said. Asked why they had made the decision to employ women, he said, “We like helping the locals, especially the women,” Narendra said, adding that even though the job was risky, none of them suffered any ill effects from their work, healthwise.
The work is often slow and painstaking. A woman de-miner at Horizon clears approximately eight to ten square metres in a day. The progress she makes depends on the soil conditions, Narendra explained. Having watched the de-miners at work, it is clear to see that the work isn’t exactly a walk in the park or rather, forest. The workers have to first clear away thick forest undergrowth, and with equipment, figure out the pattern of the mines, which differs depending on if it is an LTTE or Army minefield. The de-mining process itself has to be done carefully, ensuring there are no accidental detonations. Walking around wearing a heavy protective jacket and helmet doesn’t exactly help matters either.
But what of their stories? What drives these women to help clear villages, at great risk to themselves? Mayuri is one of the female de-miners currently working in Vavuniya. She was living in an IDP camp, because her village, Ramanalapuram, was considered unsafe. Finally, her village was cleared of landmines. Despite this, however, Mayuri and her family remained interred in the camp for a year before they were allowed to return to their village in 2010. Most people would have simply complained about the unfairness of the situation. Mayuri, however, decided to be proactive. She thought the villages weren’t being cleared fast enough, so she joined Horizon in order to help with the clearing process. That way, people could return home faster, and wouldn’t have to wait as she had.
She had to face her share of hardship on returning; land had to be sorted out for cultivation, among other things. But she didn’t give up. Though the war is over, and the victory is being feted, the recovery process is still ongoing, at least in the forests of the North and East. At present, there are still villages that need to be fully cleared. People are still waiting to return to their homes and start anew. And it is thanks to the courage of people like Mayuri that they have hope of doing so, sooner rather than later.


Sweeping changes as women sign up for mine-clearing jobs in Sri Lanka

Ben Doherty in Sydney Morning Herald

SINNAPANDIVIRICHCHAN: The women are taking back war-torn northern Sri Lanka, one square metre at a time. In some parts of the Tamil-dominated north, women are said to outnumber men by 10 to one. In the aftermath of the brutal civil war that cruelled this part of the country for the best part of three decades, the men are dead, held by the army in isolated internment camps, or have simply disappeared.

The war is over, but with as many as 40,000 civilians killed, the UN estimates, much of the north is still barely populated and hardly rebuilt. An important reason is a land still blighted by mines. Both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict laid mines, but the number is unknown. The best estimates suggest it is in the hundreds of thousands. For decades during its separatist war against the government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – known to the world as the Tamil Tigers – had jungle factories turning out thousands of landmines a week. The army laid its own fields.

Now the fighting is over, young women are the sole breadwinners in thousands of families and they are taking up one of the few jobs going: the difficult and dangerous task of clearing their scarred land, mine by mine.

Yogalingam Rubaganthy, 29, a mine clearer for a year, is helping train the second all-woman clearance team being run by the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG), funded by AusAID. ”It’s difficult work. It’s hot and it’s dry and it is difficult to be in the field all day [and to] concentrate,” she said. ”But [it] is possible for women to do the work; they have the ability.”

Rubaganthy lost her father, a sister and two brothers when her home in Killinochchi was shelled. She has one younger brother left, who is now back at school. ”That’s the main reason we are all here,” she says. ”We have responsibilities for our families. I must look after my family now.’ ‘She sees benefit for the country, too. Fleeing the fighting, Rubaganthy spent months in an internment camp. ”The camps are not a nice place to live, and many people are still there,” she says. ”They need their lands free from mines so they can come home; come back to [their] livelihoods.”

Clearing Sri Lanka’s mines is especially difficult because of the way the war was fought. The Tamil Tigers spent years laying vast minefields in an attempt to build a physical barrier that would separate the Tamil-dominated north from the Sinhalese south. But in the final weeks of the conflict, as they fled the advancing Sri Lankan Army, the Tigers took to so-called nuisance mining – laying mines without a pattern. They deliberately laid mines around trees, near houses and wells, or on paths – any place where troops and people would be likely to tread.

MAG’s technical operations manager, Magnus Rundstrom, says clearance teams scour villages first. The next priority is farmlands. Most people here rely for a living, to some degree, on what they can grow on their land. There are mines laid deep in the jungle too, but these are a lower priority. .

Rundstrom says that in conservativeSri Lankait would be inappropriate for female mine clearers to work alongside men, ”but the training they receive is exactly the same, and the work they do is exactly the same”. At 24, Egambaram Renathani is head of her household. She is being taught how to check for tripwires; to gently scrape beneath the earth, checking for mines. ”I am learning for one week,” she says. ”It is difficult but it is important for my country. I am proud to do this job.”



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