Maneshka Borham, in The Sunday Observer, 1 January 2017 where the title is “War Victims reintegrate into Society ..,”
very morning, war widow Arumainayagam Nalayani, 49, travels over 80 Km from her home in Mullivaikkal to Muhamalai for work. Never being employed before the war, to a traditional woman of the North, the work she engages in is not only daring, but comes with its own perils. Despite protests by her only child and aged mother, as the bread winner of the family Nalayani is however determined to continue. She, along with many other women, mainly widows of war, single parents and even some former LTTE cadres in the area, are today employed by Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony (DASH), a demining agency funded by the Government of Japan, which plays a pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s national demining effort.
Despite the war ending in 2009, the process of mine clearance in the country has been a long and tedious task. According to Program Manager for DASH, Brigadier Ananda Chandrasiri while 1,000 mines can be laid in a day, clearing such mines is time consuming due to the many dangers involved. The burden of demining has been taken on by various government and nongovernmental organizations, with demining efforts in the North continuing with the aim of completion in 2020, to make Sri Lanka mine impact free.
The site where Nalayani works is only one of many and lies adjacent to the 287 kilometer post along the A9 road. Once an agriculture friendly residential area where coconut, mango and jak cultivations thrived, today, the land is not habitable due to mines laid by both, the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE, during the height of the war.
”Once the demining process is completed the project would benefit 10 families allowing them to resettle while also indirectly benefitting 200 others,” says Chandrasiri adding that currently 18,804 square meters amounting to 33. 40 per cent of the hazard area of 56, 302 square meters has been cleared by Nalayani and her colleagues. According to Chandrasiri currently 721 anti personnel mines as well as another 14 unexploded ordnances have been recovered from the site and destroyed.
”The main obstacle faced by us and the reason for the slow process is due to the lack of records or maps indicating where the mines are laid,” says Operations Manager of DASH, Major Ghany Mohideen. According to Mohideen the area was used as a strong forward defence line by both the Army and LTTE during the last phases of the war, with both parties laying dense minefields on either side. ”The area was further contaminated by artillery and mortar shells during heavy fighting,” he says, adding that while the Army had laid mines in a particular pattern which is recognizable once discovered, the LTTE however, had laid mines in a haphazard manner making it difficult to clear. ”Therefore, we must, through our experiences, use evidence based methods to determine areas contaminated by mines,¨ Ghany said, adding that it requires speaking to authorities such as the Police, Hospital, Army and residents of the area while maintaining an extensive data base.
Despite being an unconventional form of employment, Nalayani says, she feels no fear while engaging in such a dangerous job. ”We are given extensive training and I have been doing this for the past four years so I feel no fear,” says Nalayani. The staff are not only given training in demining but also a casualty education and preparatory drills with the team working as a well oiled machine at times of possible crisis. ”My daughter and mother fear for my well being but I always tell them not to worry,” she says confidently.
Despite an impeccable safety record, mine clearance has not been without its incidents. In 2013 staff member Kosala Devi, yet another war widow and mother of three faced a potentially fatal accident when a mine she attempted to clear exploded through no fault on her part. ”I cannot remember much of the incident after it exploded and just remember that I fell,” she claims. However proving the mettle of Northern women, Kosala was back at work in two weeks. ”I feel no fear at work now, in fact I have no fear for anything in life,” she says adding that however her children plead with her asking her to stop doing such a dangerous occupation. ”What else can I do?” she questions pointing out that employment opportunities for women like her are few and far between in the North, yet.
Nalayani agrees. ”I suffered a lot without an income after the war and did any menial job I could find just to put some food on the table,” she recalls adding that it is working in the minefields that has helped put her child through school and on to university. ”I am proud that I have been able to help my family and I also feel a sense of pride when I see people being relocated in lands we have cleared,” she says.
According to Chandrasiri mines not only have an effect on the livelihoods of the people but create a negative psychological effect. “Therefore, when mines are cleared the benefit is immense,” he says. While mine clearance not only helps resettlement and reconciliation in the North according to Chandrasiri the efforts have also helped victims of war reintegrate into society through their employment. “We have people of all races and religions working for DASH to make our country mine free, and due to the high dependency due to its many dangers the work itself has fostered brotherhood as well as a better understanding among them today”.
Recovered mines and IEDs from the site
Mine Clearance Techniques and Technologies for Effective Humanitarian Demining, http://www.jmu.edu/cisr/journal/6.1/features/habib/habib.htm