Personal experiences in the Warfront in Sri Lanka
Part 2 – Landmines: the Hidden Enemy
Landmines – History, Background and Types
Landmines are explosive devices designed to destroy or damage vehicles, or to wound, kill, or otherwise incapacitate people. They are almost always hidden and camouflaged to match their surroundings, making them seldom seen and difficult to locate. They are usually buried or hidden in grass or buildings, fixed on stakes or to trees. Mines can be activated by being stepped-on or struck or direct pressure, tripwires, tilt rods, command detonation or through a combination of these methods..
Did You Know?
The word “mine” is derived from the Latin word mina which means “vein of ore” and was originally applied to the excavation of minerals from the earth. The term was then borrowed by military engineers whose job it was to dig mines in the ground during sieges of forts and castles, often under walls to collapse them. Modern landmines are explosive traps, but they also trace their lineage from non–explosive predecessors such as spikes and stakes used by ancient armies as far back as 2,500 years ago.
(Croll,M.History of Landmines. 1998)
Landmines were developed soon after World War 1 in response to the tank. Just as the refined internal combustion engine fostered the development of the tank as a counter to the stalemate of trench warfare, the invention in the 1920’s, of the easy- to – handle, powerful, and lightweight explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) led to the development of the first reliable anti-tank pressure mines. During the World War 11 these flat steel cylinders, measuring about 30 cm in diameter and containing about 10 kg of TNT, were used extensively. Anti-tank mines had one major weakness: they could be easily removed by the enemy, who would plant them in their own minefields.
To keep mine – clearing soldiers at bay, both German and allied troops began “seeding” their anti-tank mine fields with small metallic or glass containers containing a pound or less of explosive activated by direct pressure on pins projecting from the mine. . These were the early anti-personnel mines. Mine warfare has advanced and has resulted in the development of sophisticated anti-personnel mines today.
Land mines – two types
- Anti-personnel landmines (AP mines)
- Anti-vehicle land mines (AV mines)
Anti – Vehicle mines.
Anti-vehicle mines often referred to as anti-tank mines, are designed to disable or destroy vehicles. These mines can be detonated by pressure, by remote control, by magnetic influence or through the disturbance of a tilt rod. Because AV mines are used to destroy, they are generally found on roads, roadsides, paths and tracks. These mines have a far greater explosive charge than AP mines. They are generally round or square in shape and can be made of wood, plastic, metal and come in a range of colours. It normally takes considerable pressure to detonate a standard AV mine (120kg to 150kg). As AV mines are often designed to disable large military vehicles, their impact on smaller vehicles is catastrophic and results in the destruction of the vehicle and death or serious injury to the occupants.
Conventional and improvised claymore mines were also used by the terrorists against the Sri Lankan troops. Unlike landmines which were underground, claymore mines were kept on the surface or on top of trees and directed towards the target. They were deadly explosive devices detonated electrically or remotely and discharged ball-bearings in one direction (forward) at high speed. A typical claymore mine consists of a plastic casing 8” x 3” x 1.5” standing on two adjustable legs. The plastic casing contains a steel sheet at the back to concentrate the force of the blast in a forward direction. The explosive (700 gm) and 700 steel balls were laid in front of the steel sheet. When detonated, the device ﬁred the steel balls in one direction, inﬂicting deadly injuries to within 50 m. However, even those as far as 250 m could be injured by the steel balls which are ﬁred at high velocity. Stray fragments from the mine and secondary missiles could also cause injury.
Naval Mine (Sea mine)
A naval mine is a self-contained explosive device placed in water to damage or destroy surface ships or boats. Unlike depth charges, naval mines are deposited and left to wait until they are triggered by the approach of, or contact with any vessel. The terrorists did not use conventional naval mines, but improvised such explosive devices to destroy or damage naval gunboats or vessels.
The First land Mine Explosion in Sri Lanka – 23rd July 1983
The terrorists buried a large landmine at a place called Thirunelveli on the Jaffna- Palali main road in the Northern city of Jaffna. They made use of a place, which had been already dug up by the Telecommunication Department staff to lay some cables. This spot was 2 km from the City of Jaffna. The mine was connected with an electric wire to the detonator, and kept on the roof of a way-side boutique.
The target was the Army convoy Four-Four Bravo proceeding from Gurunagar to Jaffna. This convoy consisted of an Army jeep and a truck. There were fifteen army personnel in both vehicles. A terrorist by the name of Sathasivam Selvanayagam alias Selakilli was assigned the task of detonating the mine. He took-up position on the roof of the boutique and waited for the convoy. At 11.20 pm on the 23rd of July 1983 as the convoy approached the deadly spot, Sellakili had exploded the mine.
The massive explosion which had occurred between the jeep and the truck is supposed to have rocked the Jaffna city. Terrorist gunfire followed from positions on either side of the road. Thirteen soldiers died on the spot some due to the blast others due to gunfire. Sellakili too died at the site of the explosion. The terrorists erected a monument in his memory at the site of the explosion in his memory, but this was destroyed after the terrorists were displaced by the Army.
This was the first landmine explosion in Sri Lanka. This landmine explosion in July 1983 is how commentators date the start of our own conflict. Ealam War had just begun and the rest is history!
Ealam War 1 (1983 – 1987) – A Landmine war
With the increase in civilian conflicts beginning in the 1970’s, the automatic rifle and the landmine has been the weapon of choice for many armies and guerrilla groups around the world. They are readily available from governments and also from a vast network of private arms suppliers. Guerilla groups are also capable of improvising these deadly weapons. The explosion of these mines cause hideous mutilation, deaths and devastating injuries. In the initial phase of the Ealam war in Sri Lanka the predominant weapon used by the terrorist group was landmines and bombs against military and civilian targets resulting in injury and deaths of many civilians and armed forces personnel as well as damage to property and many Army vehicles.
Detection of Mines by Army Patrol Groups on Foot
The first phase of the War being a predominant Guerilla war, the enemy mined strategic roads to stop the movement of troops. Bridges, culverts, railway lines, small pathways, edges and shoulders of roads that traverse conflict areas were mined. There were also claymore mines tied to trees making detection difficult. These mines were laid especially at night. The troops moving by foot or in vehicles in the morning were at serious risk of being blown up if the mines were not detected and cleared before their movement on duty. Therefore Army troops on foot were assigned the task of clearing the roads of “all mines” before the movement of troops on the roads. This was a risky and life endangering duty that the Army personnel had to carry out every morning. However it was no easy task to clear all the areas of mines, thus resulting in some mines being left over and exploded by the enemy resulting in huge craters, devastation of all types of vehicles and death or serious injury to troops requiring urgent medical care.
Rescue Operations and Coordinating with the Army following a Blast
Many landmines were exploded in the Eastern Front and Polonnaruwa district itself when I was the surgeon at the Base Hospital. Following landmine explosions in the Districts of Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, some areas of Amapari and Trincomalee, the rescue operations were coordinated by the Military Coordinating Centre at Minneriya in the Polonnaruwa District. The casualties had to be transferred to the Base Hospital for emergency care. The hospitals in the adjoining Districts could not be used for security reasons. The transport of casualties to the hospital was by Helicopter, ambulance or in some cases by whatever vehicle that was available at site including Military trucks or even tractors.
The moment the Coordinating Centre at Minneriya was made aware of an explosion, I was informed by an officer at that centre. “Doc, we have a problem” he says! My reply was “Yes, We are ready to treat the casualties”. When casualties were transported by air, a few minutes later we would hear the helicopter approaching the hospital and hovering around in search of its landing place at a playground nearby. These ‘choppers’, as they were referred to were not those specially designed for the transport of casualties. Soldiers with bleeding wounds were strewn on the ‘copter’s limited ﬂoor space as they were expertly ﬂown to their destination after another encounter in this interminable, bitter and fruitless conﬂict. In the early phase of the war, most of the casualties lacked first aid and there were no paramedics to provide such care.
In the meantime, ambulances were dispatched from the hospital to fetch the casualties and bring them to the hospital. At the hospital, patgients in wards were evacuated, the operating theatre and the staff were made available to go into action as fast as possible. We were ready and everything fell into place at any time of day and night. The people in the nearby town too were there to help and, if necessary, donate blood for the victims. There was tremendous support from the people in the District.
The support extended by all hospital staff including the consultants and junior medical officers in other wards and the administrative staff was praiseworthy and must be acknowledged.
Management of the victims
During the 2 ½ year period from July 1985 to December 2017, three hundred and six (306) patients injured by explosive devices were admitted to Base Hospital, Polonnaruwa. Of these 169 (55%) were victims of landmines. One third of the victims succumbed to injuries sustained. The majority of the victims who were treated in the surgical ward had multiple injuries.
Visiting the scene of the Blasts
My first priority was to treat the casualties with the limited staff and resources available at the hospital. Once that was done my next agenda was to visit the scene of the explosion if it was accessible, not dangerous and not too far off from the hospital. I could not do this on my own but in view of the great friendship developed with the Army Officers serving in the entire district of Polonnaruwa, they would accede to my request when possible. On many occasions it was the Army Coordinating officer at the Minneriya Army Camp himself who accompanied me to the scene of the blast. On many occasions the trip had to be by helicopter of course, to avoid being blown up. On reaching the site of the explosion, I was able to assess the extent of the devastation caused by the explosion.
By taking the risk of getting involved, I have learnt many lessons that a surgeon will not learn from textbooks. The wisdom of experience gained in the ﬁeld of one’s work is something that complements academic learning.
Scenes at the site of the Blast – HUGE CRATERS AT SITE OF EXPLOSION
In the initial period of Ealam War 1 the armed forces used vehicles which were light vehicles like jeeps, pickup vehicles, Military trucks, open trucks etc. The terrorists used landmines with considerable quantity of explosives caused havoc. The impact of landmines on these vehicles was catastrophic with destruction of the vehicles and death or serious injury to the occupants. Those who travelled in open vehicles were highly vulnerable. These photographs of vehicles destroyed by landmines shown below will illustrate these facts.
To overcome these deadly effects the armed forces had to change their vehicles to prevent death and destruction. Mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP) were imported from South Africa. This is referred to as the Buffel. This vehicle can carry 12 personnel together with the driver and two gunners one in front and the other at the rear. Eight more could be seated and strapped well with seat belts. The most important feature of this vehicle was the V- shaped hull underneath to deflect the blast effectively. But there were occasions when even these so called “mine resistant” vehicles were blown up by simply increasing the quantity of explosives.
The Sri Lanka Army Electrical and Mechanical Engineers designed and manufactured MINE RESISTANT AMBUSH PROTECTED (MRAP) vehicles. The first was called the Unicorn and this was followed by an improved version referred to as the Unibuffel. These were used in the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka.
The sad stories of those valiant soldiers blown up to smithereens by the deadly landmines: the hidden enemy………
These are true War Heros of our Terrorist war which went on from 1983 to 2009. They made the supreme sacrifice for the sake of eradicating terrorism from Sri Lanka so that we could live in peace. Sadly most of them were from far-flung remote hamlets of our island nation. They and their grieving parents and their kith and kin should never be forgotten!
This story is based on my personal experiences in treating victims of landmines in Sri Lanka at Base Hospital, Polonnaruwa, General Hospital, Anuradhapura, Army Base, Palaly, Jaffna, Military Hospital, Colombo and Sri Jayewardenapura General Hospital, Nugegoda.
Any war has two sides and I am sure there would have been similar incidents, injuries, deaths and devastation in other areas as well.
The photographs used to illustrate the story have been taken by me at hospitals and various places in the war front and areas bordering the war front with permission from the Sri Lanka Army and accompanied by Army Personnel.
- An analysis of blast injuries treated at Polonnaruwa. The Sri Lanka Journal of Surgery 1989. 7, 44-51, Gamini Goonetilleke
Dear Reader, You might want to read the third part of this story in which I share from my learning experience by treating war victims : ‘TREATING WAR VICTIMS PART 3-ANTIPERSONNEL MINES’
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