Feature Article

De-mining in Jaffna said big business, as mines claim more

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 29 January 2003, 22:04 GMT]
A woodcutter, Sinnathambi Sinnathurai, 50, was seriously injured Tuesday while chopping fire wood with a relative in Mayilankoodal, Erlalai South, Jaffna, when his axe struck a landmine. He was admitted to the Jaffna hospital. Landmines continue to claim lives and limbs of civilians in Jaffna despite much publicised de-mining programs by international NGOs in the war torn northern peninsula.

A government official in Jaffna said that there are many SLA minefields in areas where people are resettling in the Thenmaradchi Division. The SLA has not permitted de-mining in many of these parts so far.

Jaffna mine clearance 1
Mines and UXOs gathered by the HDU in the Elephant Pass base await destruction near the A9

Local NGOs in Jaffna say that international organisations are doing little to make the mined areas of the peninsula safe for civilians, claiming that work on removing mines will necessarily be slow because international standards have to be maintained.

"The bluff about prolonging work to maintain international standards is called when one considers the fact that there have been at least 12 accidents in the area cleared with UNDP assistance in Jaffna", the senior NGO official in Jaffna said.

The head of the Humanitarian De-mining Unit of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, Mr. P. Yogan deplored that INGOs could do much more to speed up resettlement of civilians in the mine-infested parts of Jaffna.

"De-mining is big business in the world today. There are great pecuniary interests at stake behind the INGO's rationale for unduly prolonging the work of de-mining. What did they say about prospects for resettling in Kilinochchi early last year? If we had not taken the initiative, most towns of the Vanni would have still remained out of bounds for our people. INGOs prolong de-mining work under the pretext of maintaining international standards‚ in order to maximize their financial gains and benefits. A local de-miner is paid 100 USD per month whereas an expatriate worker is paid about 10000 US Dollars in addition to luxury vehicles and high overheads", Yogan said.

Jaffna mine clearance 2
HDU head Mr. P. Yogan
Despite the hype in the media and in Colombo's diplomatic circles about ambitious programs to remove landmines and unexploded ordnance in the north, deadly landmines such as the T 72 remain in thousands of unmarked mine fields left behind by the Sri Lanka army in November 1999 when it abandoned more than 180 kilometres of Forward Defence Lines cum Localities (FDLs) extending from Manalaaru (Weli Oya) close to the northeast coast to Pallamadhu on the island's northwest coast.

Unless it is discovered and destroyed, a Chinese made T 72 type Anti personnel Land Mine (APLM) left behind by the Sri Lanka army in the north will retain its potential to kill and maim for at least fifty years. The Pakistan made P 4 MK 1 has a 30 year warranty but can last much longer, depending on the condition of the soil in which it is sown.

The LTTE too has used land mines in several parts of the Vanni. However, these mines do not last more than 10-12 months as these consist mainly of a small wooden casing and two AA batteries which decay in the soil. Also the LTTE was able to destroy these quickly as it knew their exact location. "No mine was laid by us after December 2001. Therefore even the stray mine which may have escaped our notice, would be dead by now" an LTTE official in Kilinochchi said.

When the SLA retreated from the Elephant Pass base in April 2000 it abandoned four layers of defence lines reinforced with concrete, steel and millions of Pakistani, Chinese and US APLMs, Claymores, ordnance linked booby traps and vehicle mines.

"We think there are at least two million mines in the entire Vanni region. We do not know the number of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) left behind by the SLA. There are approximately 1470 million square metres which have to be de-mined in the Vanni region alone. There are many SLA minefields in the east and in the Jaffna peninsula", says Yogan.

There are numerous impediments to making the northeast mine-free. Shortage of funds, reluctance of international donors to fund the HDU directly, the very slow pace of international de-mining work etc.

But the biggest obstacle is the lack of knowledge about the location of mine fields. "The army has left behind thousands of mine-fields consisting of lethal devices such as T 72, P 4 MK 1, P 3 MK 1 Jumping Mines and US made M -15 vehicle mines. But we do not know where these are because the Sri Lanka military is refusing to give us the minefield maps" says Yogan.

The HDU had communicated with the Sri Lanka army through the UNDP, requesting the maps of the minefields it had left behind, when it abandoned its sprawling camps and long FDLs in the north. But the SLA has declined to part with the maps indicating the location of the areas where it had sown mines and set up booby traps.

"The SLA's refusal to give us the maps of their mine fields is today the greatest impediment to resettling refugees in all parts of the Vanni and to ensuring their economic security. Thousands of acres of fertile agricultural land still remain out of bounds for resettling communities because we have to carefully scour every inch of the soil to locate hidden minefields. And it is a slow process", Yogan said.

"There is tremendous pressure on us from the thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who want to resume their livelihoods in areas where they have begun to resettle. But expediting our work to keep pace with the speed of resettlement in the Vanni is difficult without the SLA maps", Yogan pointed out.

Informed sources said that the UNHCR had suggested that the SLA minefield maps could be obtained towards the successful conclusion of the peace talks.

However, a senior NGO worker in Jaffna, when asked about the suggestion, condemned the idea. "The army's refusal to hand over maps of its abandoned minefields in the LTTE controlled Vanni - in places where people want to resettle - can mean only one thing today. It is totally reprehensible that minefields which kill and maim people should be used as indirect bargaining chips in the talks", he said.

The HDU said that it wouldn‚t be discouraged by the absence of the SLA‚s minefield maps. The organisation plans to expand its current force of 301 de-miners to 600.

The UNDP spent more than 300 million rupees to de-mine about 998 land mines and 384 UXOs in an area of 23000 sq. metres in Jaffna from April to December 2000. The work received much publicity in the Colombo press at the time.

During the same period the nascent HDU removed 40000 mines with a basic three-pronged implement in an area of 36.7 million square metres with a budget of less than 2 million rupees.

The HDU has removed and destroyed 96500 mines and 72000 UXOs in the Vanni since it was formed in April 2000.

"We want to take our expertise to other parts of the world plagued by landmines. INGOs may take the credit for de-mining but we want to make the world a safer place for other peoples oppressed by wars and afflicted by landmines" Yogan said.


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