Let's clear the land mines

By Dr. Asoka Thenabadu
Consultant Paediatrician and Director Stat Locums Medical Agency of London

If we are to get Sri Lanka back on its feet, the peace process must succeed. Prosperity will follow Peace Expatriate Sri Lankans will return home with their dollars and their pounds sterling. Foreign investors will come to our country which has so much to offer in the way of good weather, good communications and a highly skilled workforce. Hand in hand with the peace process, rehabilitation of the war affected areas must take place. As a first priority, the landmines must be cleared and the areas must be made safe for the people and the administrators.

Land mines kill and maim the combatants on the battlefield and if uncleared after a conflict, will cause civilian casualties for years to come. Let us clear the landmines from the war ravaged areas of Sri Lanka now.

Following the 19 year long ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, an extremely large number of landmines have been laid in the war zones. These were laid for offensive purposes by the LTTE and mainly for defensive purposes by the Sri Lankan army. These have caused a large amount of military casualties in both loss of life and limb. The civilian population too have had a lot of deaths and injuries which have gone under reported. These injured people are a big social and economic burden to the families, the under resourced health service and the Sri Lankan government.

The casualties to the LTTE due to landmines are not available to the general public. There are said to be over 100 million uncleared mines worldwide. Sadly statistics are unavailable for Sri Lanka.

Landmines come in two different categories. The anti personnel mines which are small( about 10 cms in diameter) are cheap and easily procurable in the word market. The "johnny mines" (called "Battas") were manufactured as a cottage industry by the LTTE and were scattered indiscriminately and have caused extensive injuries and death to infantrymen on the battlefields of the Vanni. These are detonated by a soldier or civilian stepping on them. The larger mines are buried in the ground (on roads and pathways and other strategic areas) and detonated by heavier pressure like a vehicle passing over it or by a trip wire. The triggering mechanism sets off a booster charge which ignites the main explosive which scatters nails shrapnel and other projectiles over a wide area.

On the battlefield, antipersonnel mines explosions cause extensive trauma to the lower limbs leading to haemorrhage, exsanguination and possible death. Amputations either above the knee or below the knee will need to be done either on the battlefield or at the forward base. Larger landmines cause multiple deaths and devastation as we have seen when claymore mines were detonated under military vehicles by the LTTE.

After a conflict has been resolved, these mines can lie in the ground for several decades and pose an ongoing threat to the civilian population. They cannot differentiate between a soldier, a LTTE cadre and a cultivator or child and will cause maiming and death for countless civilians for decades to come. These landmines make the areas of earlier conflict unliveable. The fields cannot be cultivated and the presence of landmines is a disincentive for the displaced refugees to return to their homes. This will create a pool of "permanent refugees" and drain the government coffers further.

International aid is available for the clearence of landmines and there are many charities that will help. Sri Lanka (quite rightly!) did not sign the Ottawa Treaty that banned the use of these inhumane weapons as the Sri Lankan Army was using the land mines as defensive weapons to protect its base camps and the forward defence lines. As such, some governments and NGOs will be reluctant to fund our de mining programmes. Landmines are a major medical, economic, political and social problem in Sri Lanka at the present moment. Landmines kill and maim! Let's clear them!