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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 14:52 GMT
Hidden legacy of Sri Lanka's war
A garage full of mines
Most standing structures are marked with bullet holes
By the BBC's Frances Harrison in Kilinochchi

Tamil Tiger rebels who control large portions of northern Sri Lanka say they estimate there are up to two million unexploded landmines in their territory.

They say so far they have had no international assistance whatsoever in the dangerous task of clearing them.


One of the most heavily mined areas is the main town of the region - Kilinochchi - which has been badly destroyed by the country's civil war.

At times almost all the 150,000 inhabitants were forced to flee fierce fighting between the rebels and the Sri Lankan army but now it is firmly under rebel control.

People have begun gradually trickling back - risking their lives by going to see their houses which were once on the front line.

Deactivated weaponry

On one of the main streets in the town and behind a bullet marked garage door, there is a sign saying 'Danger' in three languages.

A mine awareness board
Boards have been put up to warn people of the mines

There is a mountain of deactivated landmines, something like 20,000 of them.

These are said to be Pakistan-made landmines, if you stepped on one of them they could blow off your leg and possibly take your life.

There are anti-tank mines, unexploded mortar shells, grenades - all sorts of kinds of weaponry which have been deactivated by the de-mining team in Kilinochchi.

Johan is the head of the humanitarian de-mining bureau here, he lost a leg himself when he went to see what was left of his house.

Difficult task

Johan knows de-mining is a very dangerous job but he says the risk is worth it to save other people's legs.

Johan - a de-miner and a mine victim
De-miners often get killed or wounded in the process

He and his team of volunteers de-mine without modern devices like metal detectors - first they water the earth to make it softer and then they prod it with bamboo spokes and metal forks.

"When we compare ourselves with the rest of the world we are very backward", he said.

"We do not have even the most basic facilities let alone modern equipment to do our work.

"We are using traditional implements to do our de-mining which have been locally produced."

"Using these tools it takes much longer". he said.

"So it is a big problem for people to come and resettle here", Johan said.

Donors restricted

Donors have been deterred from helping by government restrictions on rebel controlled territory - and a fear that it is too soon to start de-mining because the fighting might break out again.


The moment I can never forget was when one of my colleagues was blown up while de-mining

Anbalagan, a de-miner

They have also been concerned that modern de-mining equipment might find its way into the hands of the Tamil Tigers and have a military use.

Johan says outsiders just came and applauded their efforts and went away again.

"It's sad to say there were several NGOs who came and monitored our work but none of them came forward to help us out."

"We think that this is a humanitarian task and therefore we should not be discriminated against even though we are cut off from the rest of the country", he said.

Tragic miss

The result of the international community's indifference is that every month people like 19-year-old Ganadevar are losing their legs.

Displaced Tamil children
Thousands of Tamils have been displaced

"When I went to see my plot I got caught in one of these mines and later on my brother-in-law handed me over to the movement and those people brought me in their vehicle to this hospital", he said.

"I did not know it was mined because there was a lot of water and the grass was overgrown."

Ganadevar had been told it was safe to go back - the area had been cleared.

Too often the de-miners miss a device and the result is one more tragedy.

More mines than men

Dr Wigneswaran, who carried out the amputation of Ganadevar's left leg below the knee said lack of transport and very poor roads meant 12 hours passed before he could get to hospital.

"He bled a lot and he was given blood and after that we were able to operate and during the operation he underwent a cardiac arrest but we resuscitated and he came out from that condition, " Dr Wigneswaran said.

In two years the de-mining team in Kilinochchi have unearthed 80,000 devices.

But it is a fraction of the total in a town where landmines outnumber human beings.

And the volunteers who undertake this work run risks that would be considered totally unacceptable elsewhere.

Risky delays

Anbalagan has been a de-miner for two years.

"The moment I can never forget was when one of my colleagues was blown up while de-mining", he said.

"Another person lost his leg and some have lost their fingers and their eyes too."

"But this is something that happens not only to our workers but also to members of the public", he said.

It is clear de-mining is something that cannot wait for the right conditions.

Already the rebel authorities say 10 to 15 displaced families are returning to Kilinochchi every day - impatient to rebuild their lives.

For the last decade donor agencies have remained largely silent about the plight of civilians living in rebel controlled Northern Sri Lanka.

Local people say now it is time for them to come in and help make it safe for them to return to their destroyed homes.

See also:

21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka matches Tigers ceasefire
15 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases rebel embargo
11 Jan 02 | South Asia
Optimism over Sri Lanka peace
10 Jan 02 | South Asia
Norway opens Sri Lanka peace talks
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