SRI LANKA: Women in Front Line as Sri Lanka Tackles Landmines

Wednesday, May 11, 2011
The Sydney Morning Herald
Southern Asia
Sri Lanka
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

After the war, one of the few jobs available is clearing explosives.

The women are taking back war-torn northern Sri Lanka, one square metre at a time.

In the aftermath of nearly three decades of brutal civil war, the men are dead, held by the army or have simply disappeared.
The war is two years over, but with as many as 40,000 civilians killed, according to UN estimates, much of the north is still barely populated and hardly rebuilt. There is little economy.

A major reason is a land still blighted by landmines.

Both sides of the conflict laid mines in Sri Lanka, 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 every week. The army laid its own fields.

Now in the aftermath of the fighting, 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 de-miner for a year, is helping to train the second all-women team run by UK-based Mines Advisory Group, funded by the aid arm of the Australian government.

''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 says.

''But [it] is possible for women to do the work, they have the ability.''

She lost her father, one sister and two brothers when her home in Kilinochchi was shelled. She has one younger brother left, who is now back at school.

''That's the main reason we are all here. We have responsibilities for our families. I must look after my family now.''

She sees benefit for the country too. Fleeing the fighting, she spent months in an internment camp for Tamils displaced by the war.

''The camps are not a nice place to live, and many people are still there. They need their lands free from mines so they can come home, come back to [their] livelihoods.''

But clearing Sri Lanka's mines is difficult because of the way the war was fought.

The Tamil Tigers spent years laying vast minefields, stretching almost across the entire island, 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 ''nuisance mining'', laying mines without pattern.

They laid mines around trees, near houses and wells or on paths; anywhere where troops and people would be likely to tread.
The advisory group's technical operations manager, Magnus Rundstrom, says de-mining teams clear villages first, checking for mines in and around homes, near wells and along paths. The next priority is farmland, as most people rely on what they can grow on their land for a living.

There are mines laid deep in the jungle too, but these are a lower priority.

As he tests the new de-miners' skills, Mr Rundstrom says in conservative Sri Lanka it would be inappropriate for women de-miners to work alongside men. ''But the training they receive is exactly the same, and the work they do is exactly the same.''

At 24 years old, Egambaram Renathani is head of her household. Her two brothers and a sister were killed by shelling.

Today she is being taught how to check for tripwires.

''I am learning for one week. It is difficult but it is important for my country. I am proud to do this job.''