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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Trauma haunts Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan soldiers check bomb site
Bombs and mines have killed thousands

"It is a tragedy being disabled in Jaffna," says 36-year-old Gianesu Sriskandarajah, who used to be a driver.


Now at least I can stand on an artificial foot

Gianesu, amputee
This is a man with an unenviable expertise in tragedy.

Four years ago he decided to flee the fighting in Jaffna by taking a boat to neighbouring India.

It capsized and because he was missing a leg he couldn't swim well enough to save his wife and three children from drowning.

One tragedy led to another but Mr Sriskandarajah still looks cheerful.

"Although I feel sad inside I have to keep a smile on my face," he explains. "Now at least I can stand on an artificial foot."

Mine fears

Mr Sriskandarajah is one of thousands of people who've come to the Jaipur foot factory just outside Jaffna for a replacement plastic or aluminium limb.

Medical camp in Sri lanka
Many have suffered injuries
With the opening up of the only road to the south of the island many people from rebel territory are coming for refitting of limbs.

There's also the fear that freedom of movement brought about by the current cease-fire may lead to more mine accidents as people try to visit their abandoned and destroyed houses.

The United Nations childrens agency is funding a local drama group to tour schools and refugee camps to raise awareness about the problem of mines and unexploded ordnance.


The people can't avoid them - they have to live with mines

Elmo Anandarajah,
mine clearer
There's a blend of education and entertainment as a comic robber tries to steal the tree trunk to which the signboard warning of a minefield is attached.

There are graphic depictions, using a lot of stage blood, of people stepping on landmines - in fact several members of the same family in succession.

Awareness

More knowledge is vital - just a few days before the drama two teenage boys were seriously injured in the Jaffna peninsula because they were playing with a mortar shell.


It's my duty and this our land so we have to clear it. Only then does my life come into it

Sarin Perrera,
villager
"The people can't avoid them - they have to live with mines," explains Elmo Anandarajah of the Mine Action Group, a unit in the local government.

He says mines in countries like Afghanistan and Cambodia have been generally laid in remote rural areas.

In Sri Lanka however, they "have been laid in the thickly-populated areas and most of the fertile areas have come under these mines so it is a unique problem".

Landmines are relatively new in Sri Lanka - only in the last seven years has the problem emerged.

But that means there are large areas of the north of the island where minefields have not even been identified and mapped.

Recent risk

There's no publicity because the extent of the problem is just not known and clearance only began a year ago on a small scale.

Sri Lankan soldiers dressed in motorbike helmets with visors, flak jackets and mine shoes gingerly tread into the jungle.

Strips of terrain have been cordoned off with white tape and inch by inch they cut down the overgrown foliage with knives before they can check for hidden dangers.

Checkpost near Vani
Sri Lankans have faced security checks
"After 15, 20 minutes we have to give some rest because of the heat," explains Major DP Jayasinghe. "With this climate they lose their concentration."

It's a terrible job but Sarin Perrera says he's not frightened to be the first one walking into uncleared areas.

"It's my duty and this is our land so we have to clear it. Only then does my life come into it."

Refugees flood home

The Sri Lankan army says it has only 60 mine-clearers and it will not allow civilians to do the work.

But the need for mine clearance is so great some illegal private operators have sprung up - impoverished and totally untrained people ready to risk their lives for money.

International donors have been reluctant to get involved in a big way up until now because neither the government nor the rebels has been willing to make any commitment to stop laying landmines.

But it's clear the success of the current but still fragile peace process in Sri Lanka means mine-clearing has to be speeded up.

Especially as thousands of displaced people are reported to be spontaneously returning home before there's been time to prepare for them.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

27 May 02 | South Asia
24 May 02 | South Asia
18 Mar 02 | South Asia
23 May 02 | South Asia
21 May 02 | South Asia
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
29 May 02 | South Asia
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