Military minds its mine studies

The Sri Lanka School of Military Engineering has undertaken the task of producing hundreds of de-miners as resettlement of IDPs becomes a priority. Hiranthi Fernando reports on how this school prepares soldiers and officers for the dangerous task, Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara


It is a slow and backbreaking process. A one-metre-wide and ten-metre long strip is marked. The two team members change every half hour or even sooner if necessary. While one works, the other stays alert, ready to come to his aid if necessary.

At the starting point, the de-miner first runs his hands lightly over the area just in front of him to check for mines. Then using a trip-wire feeler, he checks for wires in all directions. Thereafter he runs the detector over the area, inching his way forward through the demarcated strip.

With thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in temporary camps in the north and east, resettlement is an urgent necessity. However, before resettlement, the land has to be cleared of mines. The Sri Lanka Army being the major force handling de-mining, priority has been given to training courses in de-mining at the Sri Lanka School of Military Engineering (SLSME).
The SLSME conducts a variety of courses for the Army and the Navy at its Embilipitiya school located in a more than 70-acre land. The head of the Embilipitiya school, Col. Kalanapriya Wijesundera, says the school had been divided into two. The other section is located at Thunukkai, south of Mankulam where Field Engineering and basic Assault Pioneer courses are conducted. Embilipitiya conducts courses on bridging, bomb disposal, plant operator, mine-detecting dog handling, military and humanitarian de-mining, watermanship, including boat riding, raft making and survival in water, in addition to water-borne courses for Special Forces and explosive courses for the Navy.

In military de-mining, they de-mine and go ahead, says Col. Wijesundera. Humanitarian de-mining, however, has to be carried out according to international standards because it is carried out for the resettlement of civilians. Initially, officials from an American company registered with the US State Department conducted the de-mining courses at Embilipitiya. Officers from the UNDP and the US embassy's defence section also visited weekly and prepared reports on the progress. They also brought dogs and trained local handlers. The dogs have now been sent to Jaffna.

Sri Lanka Army officers conduct these courses for soldiers and officers. After the course, they will be sent to the north for de-mining operations. According to Col. Wijesundera, the army has been given the task of de-mining 75% of the liberated area, while some INGOs and one local NGO are also working in Jaffna.

De-mining is no easy task. "It is a very slow process," Col. Wijesundera says. An Impact Survey is initially done before selecting sites for de-mining. Information from civilians is taken into account in this survey. A map is given to the area's Government Agent who looks at the priorities; if there are people living in the area, paddy fields, usage etc. Then a meeting is held with the Nation Building Ministry to determine how much can be done. The GA decides on the priorities and which group should be given the undertaking. A technical survey is carried out by the de-mining group. The time taken to de-mine one metre according to the terrain is determined in the survey. The progress of de-mining is checked by the UNDP.

A mock-up of an actual humanitarian de-mining site was arranged on the SLSME premises, and groups of de-miners were ready for action with Lt. Col. Udaya Kumara, Commanding Officer, 1 Field Engineers, Jaffna in charge. Specified international standards were observed.
Lt. Col. Kumara, who is also the Chief Coordinator and Chief Instructor for Humanitarian De-mining, says "If these standards are not maintained, we are not allowed to undertake humanitarian de-mining."
A map of the area around Embilipitiya was set up and the approach to the site marked. A briefing officer gave a commentary on each step of the procedure. The layout of the administration area set out 16 points that are mandatory according to UN standards, such as parking areas, rest areas, view point, explosive dump, metal dump, detonator stores, command post, ambulance park, medic hut and test pits.

According to the international marking system for humanitarian de-mining, different coloured
stakes and cords are used to indicate various areas such as hazardous areas, boundaries of dangerous areas, priority areas, areas with anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines or unexploded mines or devices, and places where explosives have been found.
The de-mining personnel wear protective clothing to shield the body in the event of a blast. The team leader first briefs the team. Each member then goes to the test pit to check that the detector is in good order. "We use Mine Lab F3 detectors, which are the best in the world," Lt. Col. Kumara says. They then go to the bench mark, where the minefields and the direction are indicated by red or orange cords. For de-mining, a one-metre wide and ten-metre long strip is marked and two soldiers work in each section.
De-miners sometimes suffer from heatstroke due to the heat from the protective gear and the sun, says Lt. Col. Kumara. All facilities are in place for evacuation if a de-miner faints from the heat or has any other medical problem, he says.

When an incident occurs, all sections stop work and cross off the areas with the marking stakes. At the ambulance point, there is a qualified paramedic with a fully equipped medical kit. Stretcher bearers rush to the victim who is brought to the ambulance and examined by the paramedics who are all trained to give mouth-to-mouth respiration. They also have ambo bags which can be used with oxygen for CPR and other equipment to clear blocked airways.
Cpl. H.H. Subasinghe, one of the paramedics on duty, says he was trained by the American company in 2003.
"I was in battle till May," says Lt. Col. Kumara explaining that they had to do military de-mining for the battle to continue. "We de-mined bunds at Puthukudiyiruppu, Muhamalai and Odusuddan up to Elephant Pass. Huge earth bunds were cleared with explosives for the tanks and troops to go through."

The officer says they are planning De-mining Management courses for officers and basic courses for soldiers. These courses have been started after an interval of five years. Two one-month basic courses have been conducted in July and August for some 300 soldiers. This month, 400 will be trained. "We give them sites in the jungle, a full day's training with detectors, and probing drill. We give them a narrative and get them to create the site. We also train them in studying the sounds of different mines."
Sites are prepared with different types of mines buried at different depths. De-miners are trained in the use of detectors to identify the type and depth of the mine by the sound. After some time they become proficient in this exercise. Tests are conducted during the courses and certificates awarded.
Lt. Col. Kumara, together with another officer, has formulated an operation manual on de-mining. Another manual in Sinhala on the essentials for de-mining has been done for the soldiers, and can be followed by civilians.
Captain Indika Athugala from the 1st Field Engineers' Regiment in Jaffna was trained by the American company in 2003 at Embilipitiya. "When a site is established we first ensure 100% individual security," says Capt. Athugala who participated in de-mining in Puthur, Thambuthottam and Jaffna.

He says: "There was a minefield opposite the Kachcheri, which we cleared. We found a minefield in a paddy field and cleared 2½ km. Before the Madhu festival, we cleared the area. The LTTE had made bunkers 100'150 metres in front of the church. There were a lot of mines. We finished de-mining and documentation and handed over the area on July 31st."
The captain says they are now engaged in de-mining in the Rice Bowl area in Mannar, but they have a lot of de-mining to do before resettlement.
Humanitarian de-mining is a slow process with stringent conditions to be adhered to. Although there are mechanical de-mining devices, these are extremely expensive and unaffordable.
Moreover it has to be carried out delicately and in conformity with international standards while keeping in mind the safety of our de-miners, Lt. Col. Wijesundera points out.

Von:, 07.09.2009

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