Sri Lanka's women deminers clean up legacy of Asia's longest war

Thu Sep 22, 2011 10:37pm EDT
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By Nita Bhalla

MANNAR, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) - Wearing a visor and a protective vest over grey fatigues tucked into black military boots, former housewife S. Dishanty crawls on her hands and knees through dense bush, slowly inching forward and methodically scanning the ground.

A year ago, this 23-year-old Sri Lankan woman was looking after her elderly parents and young son in their war-devastated village. Nowadays, she searches for an instrument of that destruction: landmines.

"My husband went missing during the war. My family and I lived in a camp for displaced people ... when we returned home after the fighting, everything was destroyed," Dishanty told Reuters in a cleared patch of a mine field in Sri Lanka's northwestern district of Mannar.

Dishanty is part of a small number of women in post-war Sri Lanka who are taking on the risky role of clearing up the legacy left from a conflict which lasted a quarter of a century -- and changing age-old views in this conservative and patriarchal, largely Hindu Tamil community.

"I had to find a job to support my family. This job gives me an income and has made people proud of me."

The Indian Ocean island is in its third year of peace after government forces defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers in May 2009, but the threat of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) lies buried under swathes of agricultural and forest land, as well as some villages.

After almost 10 years of the army and aid groups "de-contaminating" the island, reports of casualties are dropping. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, there were six deaths in 2009 compared with 11 the year before.

But experts say there are hundreds of thousands more mines, mainly in the north of the country, which could take another decade to clear.   Continued...

<p>Biruntha Ravichandran, 21, a deminer working for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), searches for mines in a mine field in Kannaddi, located in Mannar district in Sri Lanka, September 8, 2011. REUTERS/ALERTNET/Nita Bhalla</p>