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It’s boom time for minesweepers

[Express Buzz, Sunday, 28 March 2010 10:33 No Comment]

Major General (Retd) Shashikant Pitre has a demanding schedule. So the meeting with him has to take place outside the Chennai International Airport, where the head of the Horizon Group is waiting for his noon flight to Colombo.

It’s a trip his colleagues and he have been making almost monthly for nearly eight years now — ever since Horizon, one of the two Indian NGOs working on de-mining the erstwhile conflict regions in Sri Lanka started their work there.

“We focus on post-conflict environment management and are almost exclusively staffed by ex-servicemen from the Indian armed forces,” he says. Horizon (the De-mining People, as they call themselves) was started by Pitre and seven other former colleagues (mostly in the Engineers corps) in 2001. By 2003, they were using their expertise and experience in combat to start de-mining operations in Sri Lanka. Horizon believes in channelling the expertise of ex-servicemen, creating and providing a decent income for them.

“Shortly after the ceasefire agreement was signed in Sri Lanka, we stepped in. We were funded by the Norwegian People’s Aid organisation and worked with the Melinda Moragada Institute for People’s Empowerment in Sri Lanka.”

Only, their work at that point in time, was Sisyphean to say the least. “As we removed the mines, the LTTE would often relay the mines in areas we had just cleared. Even though they had agreed to the ceasefire!” Pitre recalls.

Nonetheless, the team has continued with its work in the region till today. “After the war finally ended last May, it became a true post-conflict environment and therefore easier to work in,” he says. Briefly Horizon also worked in Jordon for a year.

“But after years of being funded mainly by the Norwegians, this year we decided to approach the Indian Government for support as well. Since the Government already planned to fund rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka, they have given us three projects this year. We have another project continuing with the Norwegians.”

Like most organisations that work on de-mining former conflict zones, Horizon trains and employs locals. In recent years, thanks to a component of women’s empowerment from their key sponsors NPA, they have also started employing local Tamil women as well. “Our expert staff is mostly Tamil-speaking and therefore gets along well with the local community.”

Horizon specialises in manual de-mining (“because it is more foolproof than mechanised de-mining”), a task that is never easy to begin with, but it becomes so much tougher when dealing with mines that are laid by militant organisations.

“Each conventional army has a pattern of laying mines. For instance, a zig zag pattern. In those cases, once a de-miner spots a mine, he or she would be able to start the de-mining process along the pattern followed by the army in question.”

However, the Tigers, who manufactured their own mines, followed no such pattern. “We call that nuisance mining. This requires us to work over the land on an inch-by-inch basis,” he says.

This brings us to the process of de-mining. The United Nations has a detailed protocol for the job, which makes it slow going. “But by following it closely, we have not had a single casualty in eight years."

Each country where there are suspected mined areas is required to have a National Steering Committee of Mine Actions, with District Mine Action Officers who get into action when there is news of an explosion.  This is when the mine agency steps in.

“We start with a non-technical survey which includes talking to the residents for any news of mine explosions in the region. This is followed by a technical survey after which we narrow in on the area that needs manual demining,” Pitre explains.

He stresses the need for care. “We cannot endanger a life in order to save a life.” The process begins with a de-miner following a grid of the area to be de-mined, going over the land with a rake. When a mine is located, the de-miner removes the detonator.

It is at this point that the combat experience of the ex-servicemen becomes handy. “The Tigers lay what we call a nuisance minefield. But based on our experience and logic, it becomes easy to pinpoint the locations of the mines.”

“Let’s say that the Tigers had a bunker in a particular spot. And they know that the Army would have been able to approach only through certain routes. They would look out for places that the enemy might duck behind or shelter while approaching their bunker, and put the mines in those locations."

The result of this approach is that several houses and huts in northern and eastern villages are heavily mined. “This is the case with non-state powers — the combat areas are the civilian areas.”

“This is why the criticism of the Sri Lankan government as intentionally delaying the resettlement process becomes unfair. There is a genuine problem – several areas are heavily mined – and the casualties ought not be risked. They are resettling people immediately after we give a Battle Area Clearance but it is a time consuming process,” he says.

He adds, “There is also a genuine fear that Tigers might still be around. Overtly there is no LTTE presence but they still have well placed friends and supporters abroad.”

In fact, earlier this week, it was revealed that Indian organisations had successfully cleared 63 million sq metres in north Sri Lanka. “We could safely say that at least 60-70 per cent of habitable areas have been cleared. I am not including jungle areas that may be mined because our priority is ensuring resettlement. The entire de-mining should be over by 2012,” he explains. Of the area that they have cleared, most did not require de-mining, rather clearance of unexploded ordnance.

“This would include unexploded bullets, grenades and other such devices that would litter any area post-conflict. These are easier to clear because they are usually visible by the naked eye. This also makes them dangerous because civilians can get in contact with them more easily. If we had been de-mining the entire area of the conflict it would take decades,” he laughs.

— ranjithagunasekaran@expressbuzz.com

Mine facts

There are millions of mines across the world which has seen 164 armed conflicts since the Second World War, Major General (Retd) Shashikant Pitre points out. “A mine is a combat technique aimed at causing damage,” he says. There are two kinds of mines: anti-personnel mines and anti-tanker mines. “The anti-personnel mines are usually less than six inches beneath the ground because the switch of the detonator goes off with pressure from a person stepping on it.". The anti-tanker mines are therefore less dangerous to civilians as they are set off only by something as heavy as a tanker.

"The newer problem, however, is that of Improvised Explosive Devices. They include all kinds of metals and parts into the mine to maximise the damage."

While there has been a strong movement from 1996 against land mines, few countries have signed the International Convention for Banning of Land Mines. “This when 24,000 people are killed by mines every year — of which 30 per cent are children.”

IPKF days

For Pitre, returning to Sri Lanka to help in humanitarian efforts brings back memories of his days in the IPKF. “Sadly, the IPKF has been unnecessarily defamed,” he says. He recalls a meeting with a journalist in Sri Lanka in the days of the CFA. “The first question is also related to the stories of looting, raping and plundering of civilians!” he says, hurt.

“We went to help. We never even laid a mine in Sri Lanka — I often challenge people who criticise the IPKF to show us one Indian mine there.”

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