Tsunami Awakens Fears of Mines

January 14th, 2005 - by admin

Nick Ravenscroft / BBC News – 2005-01-14 22:41:21


Eastern Sri Lanka (January 13, 2005) — Both the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tiger rebels have over the years used landmines, and the civilian death toll as a result has been high.

But now the dangers they pose have been made more acute because the tsunami has picked up the mines and deposited them across whole villages, making many more areas unsafe for locals.

The scene in Kalladi is the same as in many beach side villages in the east of Sri Lanka: smoke billows through what is left of the palm trees as neighbours burn the debris from the tsunami. But those raking through the debris wearing protective gear are not part of the normal clear-up operation. They are searching for mines.

Dan Rawlins is the regional field manager for the Mines Action Group. “Essentially, a P-4 anti-personnel mine is about 190 grams in weight,” he says, “it is round, green and plastic. You can hold it in the palm of your hand, about 70 millimetres diameter.”

Tread on one of these devices and it will take your leg off or even kill you. They were planted around the nearby army base to keep the Tamil Tigers out.

The Tigers have been fighting for a separate state in the north and this the east of the island, and the 20-year conflict has been bloody, costing 65,000 lives.

Although there has been a ceasefire for the last three years, there is still plenty of military hardware around, especially since the tsunami scattered mines throughout the neighbourhood.

Children Everywhere
The stores of the army base in Kalladi were flushed out across the village. Empty ammunition boxes are still wedged under the bushes.

But it is the mines primed and ready to detonate at the slightest pressure which cause most concern. Even a small child is heavy enough to set one off. And in Kalladi, there are small children everywhere.

Posters are displayed in the village displaying the different types of mines.

It is an exercise that saves lives, as a small boy called Tipan can testify.

He found a device sticking out of the ground and knew straight away it was a mine from what he had been taught at school. Tipan was able to alert the military, who took the device safely away.

In the space of just five minutes it is possible to speak to two other families who found mines. One woman, Selvam, said the army had even been to check her home. But she still does not feel reassured.

De-mining Squadron
“Normally I do the cleaning daily,” she says, “but now I am afraid to go and sweep the compound and won’t allow my children to go and play. I keep them inside the house.”

However, there is some good news for the mine clearers. Tamil Tiger bases tend to be further inland, out of range of attacks by the Sri Lankan navy.

That means that their mine fields may not have been affected by the tsunami, unlike army ones closer to the coast. The army has a humanitarian de-mining squadron and it is trying to find the missing mines.

The commander is Captain Sileh Jayasinghe. “Up to now I can’t say how many mines have gone from the mine field,” he says “but now, almost 75% of the village has been cleared.”

Captain Jayasinghe stresses that if small children are to avoid casualties, it will be necessary to clear the whole area.

Safety Compromised
Those helping the army to make the neighbourhood safe are exposed to greater risk because many had their protective gear swept away.

I watched one mine clearer, Seray, at work. A pair of flip-flops were the only protection he had for his feet.

With a shrug of the shoulders, he says leaving mines is dangerous, and more of a threat than just getting on with the job, boots or no boots. “We know that it’s a risk but you know when you think about the welfare of these people, we can’t look after our safety,” he says.

If they were clearing a mine field on open ground, they could rely on remote controlled trucks quickly and safely to sweep the area. But such gadgets are useless in the alleys and gardens of Kalladi.

The Mines Action Group says 1,200 have been killed by landmines in Sri Lanka’s long civil war: a fraction perhaps of the number who perished on 26 December. But while the death toll from the tsunami seems to have stabilised here, it could still indirectly nudge up the numbers lost to mines.

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