DeterMined

posted in Note by Producer

DeterMined

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

When the war finally concluded in 2009 it was estimated that as many as one million landmines and items of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) remained as a deadly legacy of the conflict. Based on surveys conducted after the war a total of 2.065 km2 of land was designated as Confirmed Hazardous Areas. This feature explores the use of Information Communications Technology (ICT) in the day to day operations of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international mine action agency deployed in Sri Lanka.

The location is Puthukudiyiruppu township in Mullaitivu District of Northern Sri Lanka, once the nerve centre of LTTE operations and the scene of the last stages of the civil war. Four years on, the main street is flanked with shells of buildings. The walls that still stand, are aerated by bullet holes the size of your fist. It is hard to imagine that this was once someone’s neighbourhood, their route to school or work; their home. Development is everywhere. Schools, churches and hospitals are being rebuilt, flood lights illuminate roadwork at night and your mobile phone hardly ever drops out.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Having returned home after years of being displaced as a result of the war communities are faced with the problem of inaccessibility to their livelihoods – their land. They need access to firewood, paddy land or their previous home gardens, and so begin to consciously take significant risks to their own safety by entering areas contaminated with landmines and UXO.

Baby Thushani who just started walking lives next to a live minefield with her parents and disabled grandfather. Thushani’s younger sister was just born.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Clearing land safely to remove the hazards of landmines and UXO is the main priority of agencies like MAG. Skilled, trained and experienced personnel form teams that are deployed into the field to painstakingly process land square metre by square metre to safely remove and destroy landmines and unexploded ordnance.

A trained MAG technician displays a landmine that has been defused and neutralised.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

The total estimated extent of contamination in Confirmed Hazardous Areas (CHAs) in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as at end of June 2013, is approximately 89.07 km². While there is no approximation of suspected contamination it can be assumed that those areas not yet released by the Government of Sri Lanka (15 GNs in Jaffna District) may require mine action interventions. In Puthukuduyiruppu, on the periphery of LTTE leader’s home deep in the jungle, there is a line of yellow stakes that snakes through the jungle as far as the eye can see. Yellow pickets mark previously removed mines.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

The process that leads up to clearance begins months in advance through the work of Community Liaison Teams – the eyes and ears on the ground. These teams integrate with mine affected communities who gather as much information about the Confirmed Hazardous Areas (CHAs) to assist with development of maps, clearance methodologies and priority clearance areas within the CHA. For example, a clear path to a water source within the minefield.

Community Liaison Officers build close relationships with communities, and when residents have on occasion found unexploded ordnance or antipersonnel mines in their land and have contacted MAG Community Liaison teams using mobile phones, or CDMA phones placed at community centres or with government agents. MAG is therefore able to respond to these ’spot tasks’ immediately. Pictured here unexploded ordnance prepared for detonation.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Deminers are the heroes that allow people to return home. They rise before the sun to take up their protective gear and tools and work in the unrelenting heat at 45 minute intervals. After 15 minutes break they resume operations. Deminers work in the coolest working hours 6 am – 1 pm depending on the weather.

Agencies like MAG are tasked to clear Confirmed Hazardous Areas, and respond by deploying a range of assets and resources which forms an integrated approach to clearance and land release. These range from mechanical assets, manual demining teams and also mine detection dogs.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Data accuracy of operations is recorded meticulously. A to-scale map at each task, a task clearance plan, a casuality evacuation (casevac) plan and a progress chart which displays the metres squared cleared and/or surveyed, number of mines found and which teams have been deployed are all available on site, as well as on the MAG database.

Database is managed by the Technical Operations Manager who authorises and validates the entry of all data. The accuracy and integrity of this data is essential as it documents each process, square metre by square metre which holds MAG accountable for its clearance to communities they release the land to. This information is managed using IMSMA-NG – software used by developmental agencies, donors and mine action partners worldwide.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Accurate mapping plays an important role as it identifies contaminated areas down to the square metre. Regularly updated maps allow operations to identify which team processed which piece of land. These details are meticulously recorded on the site map by site supervisors.

MAG Technical Operations Manager Andy Crump explained that “this map was drawn the old fashioned way, with a compass and a measuring tape. The size of this task is over 300,000 m². GPS and computerised maps are indeed useful tools however GPS coordinates are not absolutely accurate. Safety is my primary concern and even one square metre variance is not acceptable during clearance.”

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Technical Survey is the process of clearing breaching lanes across a minefield to identify the exact location of landmines. MAG uses specially modified and heavily armoured machines to conduct the technical survey work. To ensure safety Machine operators communicate with their supervisors via a VHF radio as they process the land with their machines.

During Technical Survey vegetation is cut down, and the ground is prepared and mines are easy to see. Once identified, manual demining teams follow up to remove the landmines. This methodology has proven to be an extremely efficient way to clear minefields and to release safe land back to communities in Sri Lanka.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

A Control Point is set up at a safe distance to every live minefield, this is where the teams gather and are briefed by their team leaders every morning before the work starts. Seamless communications plays a large part in releasing safe land Team communications are centralised at the Communications room located in the Central Operating Base in Vavuniya. In the field, team leaders use CDMA phones and VHF radios to communicate directly with the Medics and the Control Point who in turn communicate with the Communications Room throughout operational hours.

Deminers are each equipped with Personal Protective Equipment that includes a fragmentation vest and a safety visor. Each team is also equipped with an ambulance and a medic. Casevac plans mandate that the medical evacuation teams communicate daily using mobile phones and CDMA phones with local hospitals to inform them of active operations in the field. Due to the high risk nature of demining these communications continue throughout operational hours in order to ensure that all medical needs are covered.

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Puthukudiyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

In 2011, 23 civilian casualties resulting from landmine and/or UXO related accidents were reported. This figure rose to 33 in 2012. In the first six months of 2013 seven accidents have been reported. Approximately half of these casualties (45%) were children who often succumbed to their injuries. Little girls like Ranjini whose previous home was a MAG control point in the last year look to the future full of hope and promise as they are now able to restart their lives.

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) began Humanitarian Mine Action operations in Sri Lanka in 2002. MAG was deployed to the Vanni region in 2009 immediately after the war came to an end. During emergency, MAG together with several international and local mine action partners released thousands of square meters of land back to the communities for resettlement.

Photographer and a producer were accompanied on training or live hazardous areas by Technical Operations Manager Andrew Crump. All photography was conducted under his direct supervision in safe and controlled environments.