SRI LANKA: High-impact landmine clearance
MAG’s current project in north-east Sri Lanka is an example of our emphasis on long-term benefits for conflict-affected communities.
Mannar district was a stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) during the civil war. Whole towns were abandoned and used as military bases, and millions of landmines were laid across the region.
Residents began leaving Sinnapandivirichchan village in 2006, most ending up in the Menik Farm IDP camp in 2009, after long and traumatic experiences fleeing from battle after battle.
Now, development of the village is well underway. A new school is being built, shops are opening up and MAG teams are clearing more land for agriculture.
Stage 1: threat reduction and resettlement
MAG Community Liaison teams (made up of Sri Lankan staff trained by MAG. Read more on capacity building) visited the abandoned village of Sinnapandivirichchan in November 2009.
Community Liaison Officer Aseervatham Vinoth was one of the first to walk through the deserted community, sensing the threat from the hidden mines:
“There was nobody there. Everything was overgrown and there were bunkers, barbed wire and debris all over the place. All the buildings were destroyed. The main road was open and used by the military but all the other roads were overgrown,” he said.
“We found three mine rows running through the centre of the village and defensive lines of mines on many sides. The area was badly contaminated.
Vinoth and his colleagues gathered data on where houses once were, from former residents brought back to the village from displacement camps and by speaking to the Sri Lankan Army and former LTTE members.
This was translated into comprehensive clearance plans for the village, prioritising access routes and areas for families to return.
While clearing MAG found 1,260 landmines and 12 items of unexploded ordnance, paving the way for the next stage of reconstruction and development.
Despite the devastation, Benjamin Romavl, a 64-year-old community leader, explained the relief he felt when he returned with his family last year: “Everything was destroyed, even our plantation, but we were very happy to be home.”
Benjamin’s experience during the civil war is typical of many people's.
“When the shelling started, myself, my wife and one of my daughters fled to Madhu Church, a designated no-fire zone near the village. But the fighting was intense nearby and we didn’t feel safe, so after four days we went to Vellankulam. We travelled in my old three-wheeler and loaded all our belongings on the top. We spent five months in Vellankulam and then had to flee again.
“We went to Vannerikkulam for nine days, then because of the fighting and shelling we moved to Skandapuram. Three days later we went on to Kilonochchi where we spent six months.
“It was very difficult. We had problems getting food and water and there was no medicine. Fighting caught up with us again and many people were killed in the shelling.
“We fled to Piramanthanaru for four days, then on to Moonkilaru for 11 days. Then to Suthanthirapuram for seven days. It was supposed to be a safe zone, a no-fire zone, but it wasn’t. The bunkers were all full of water so we had no cover. We had no food or water. This was a really bad time and we all suffered. There were many thousands of people all cramped together.
“We abandoned the three-wheeler and our belongings and joined about 5,000 people and crossed to the Army side. The LTTE shot at us, but we made it.
“We were given food and water, and were put on buses to Vavuniya. For the first four months we lived in a school. Then we were taken to an IDP camp where we spent a year and four months.”
Stage 2: reconstruction and development
After preserving people’s lives, MAG then set about the task of improving livelihoods, through the Safer Village Plan – an innovative pilot scheme to ensure other priority areas of the village could be cleared.
As part of the plan, MAG co-ordinates meetings between key local community representatives, national authorities responsible for resettlement and international partner agencies. The scheme therefore takes an integrated approach, asking how different types of humanitarian work can have the most effective impact on people desperately in need.
Sinnapandivirichchan’s Safer Village Plan has now been running for almost a year, lead by MAG’s survey, clearance and land release work. MAG’s practical and efficient solutions to returning safe land are being followed up by development agencies responding to the community’s subsequent need for sustainable growth.
This pioneering idea has now been adopted by the Sri Lankan Government and Regional Mine Action Office, who are introducing similar committee systems elsewhere, so more communities can participate in mine action planning. It is expected MAG’s Safer Village model will become part of Sri Lankan national mine action standards in the future.
Mr Nirmaladhas is the school's Principle: “Thanks to MAG clearing the land, people have returned and they have their livelihoods back. MAG has cleared their homes and their fields and helped them to be safe.
“When I came back and everything was destroyed and overgrown. Now you can see the village has changed and is developing and we are building a new two-storey school that will have a library and a computer room. The community needs education to realise their potential and develop.
“This would not be possible without MAG and UNICEF. MAG searched the land with detectors so we could start building and they found six unexploded bombs. On behalf of the community here, I sincerely thank MAG and the people that support MAG.”
As the sun begins to dip towards the horizon, Benjamin Romavl and his wife feed the chickens, while their daughter washes clothes at the recently renovated well. It is an idyllic setting framed by coconut palms and banana plants.
“Soon it will be like it was before and we are very happy,” he says. “One hundred and fifty-three families are here now only because of MAG. Otherwise how could we be here? Our lives would be a question mark. I thank God and I thank MAG.”
|MAG thanks the following donors for their support to the Sri Lanka programme: AusAID; Canadian International Development Agency; The Kirby Laing Foundation; Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, US Department of State; Stichting Vluchteling; UKaid (UK Department for International Development); UNICEF.|
|1 April 2011|