The group of women chatting over tea and cookies after a long day of work does not look like the cover models for a publication on conventional weapons destruction. Some look like moms -- and several are -- some look barely old enough to drive a car, much less search for landmines. Most of them are the primary breadwinner for their family; several have lost their husbands or fathers to war. All of them rise well before dawn to start a day of rigorous, dangerous, but absolutely crucial, demining work. And yes, some of them grace the cover of this year’s edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, the U.S. State Department’s annual report on conventional weapon destruction assistance.
Following a 26-year conflict, communities across northern Sri Lanka are still heavily littered with landmines and other explosive remnants of war, such as unexploded bombs, artillery shells, and mortars. These hidden hazards are a critical obstacle to getting back to farming, fishing, and going to school for those who live here. The ladies agree that they became deminers for the financial security that a stable job brings to their families. What inspires them to stay in a dangerous, difficult job is the feeling that the work they do is valuable, both to them and their families, and to their larger community. Not only do they ensure their families' financial survival, but also the lives and livelihoods of their friends, and neighbors.
Before I visited the team at their base, I had the opportunity to watch a deminer recover and defuse an anti-personnel mine. Though I stood well back and out of any danger, I held my breath through the entire delicate procedure. Sivarasa Piremila, or "Primmy," is a Deputy Team Leader for Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK-based demining non-governmental organization working in Sri Lanka, supported by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Conventional Weapons Destruction program. She is much closer to the action—she defuses landmines every day. She admits that, at first, it was a frightening proposition, but due to her meticulous training she now feels confident that her safety is assured. She has worked in mine action in Sri Lanka since 2009, first as a medic, then a deminer, and finally as a Deputy Team leader. This leadership position gives her authority not only over her fellow female deminers, but also male deminers in a mixed-gender demining team. Primmy’s teammates describe other opportunities they have had to develop skills they might otherwise never have learned, including one who recently received her driver’s license.
The team connects closely with their community and the beneficiaries of their work. In Mullaitivu, Primmy's team conducted clearance on a piece of land that now holds a brand new pre-school. They describe it as their favorite project to date, one in which they could immediately see how much it helped the eighty children who now fill the school, as well as their parents and teachers. The government allocated land to construct the school, but the mother of a child who was scheduled to be enrolled when the pre-school opened discovered a landmine. The land was contaminated; if it could not be cleared, the project would have to be postponed or even abandoned entirely. Primmy’s team, funded by the U.S. Department of State, was quick to respond, and the area was safe in time for workers to lay the school’s foundation. The British charity Child First UK provided the new school building and JEN, a Japanese NGO, built a pump to ensure a clean water supply, making this a truly international effort. Mothers of the schoolchildren gather daily to work in the surrounding area, clearing it of stones and other debris to make a safe playground for the children.
To see more of Primmy's team, and to read about PM/WRA's work in Sri Lanka and worldwide, please see the recently released annual report on Conventional Weapons Destruction, To Walk the Earth in Safety.