Putting life on the line clearing mines

Manxman Chris Garrett deals with a landmine in Karen Street on the Thai/Burma border. Chiris is volunteering with Beyond the Borders to help clear the 500,000 landkines left by the 67 year civil war

Manxman Chris Garrett deals with a landmine in Karen Street on the Thai/Burma border. Chiris is volunteering with Beyond the Borders to help clear the 500,000 landkines left by the 67 year civil war

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By his own admission, former QEII High School pupil Chris Garrett has had something of a chequered history in the Isle of Man.

The 30-year-old, known to all his friends as Swampy, got in trouble with the law when he was younger.

He’s been a fisherman, joined the army for a very short time before injury caused him to leave, and latterly has been working as a tree surgeon.

But for the past four months he’s been putting his life on the line day after day as an unpaid volunteer clearing landmines in Burma.

He’s currently back in the island for five to six weeks to raise funds and awareness for the Beyond the Borders project.

But an in-depth account of the risks taken by Swampy and the other volunteers to help the people of Karen State rebuild their lives is detailed in his revealing blog.

A 67-year civil war has left around 500,000 mines in the ground along with other unexploded ordnance. Landmines account for a large amount of casualties each year in Karen State and other ethnic areas - and nearly all casualties are civilians.

Beyond the Borders’ goals are to clear areas on the Thai/Burmese border that contain lost mines and to reopen access to land to the Karen that was otherwise deemed unsafe, allowing refugees to return to their land.

Chris’s blog entry for July 8 tells how he chanced upon a landminein an area thought to have been cleared close to the jungle camp where some of his fellow volunteers were still sleeping.

He writes: ‘I didn’t get to bed till 1am and the ants marching through my tent at 6am and biting my face wasn’t the best wake-up ever! Morning Karen state, I love you too. Bloody jungle!

‘I get ready to clear a suspected area right in the middle of the camp. It’s less than 20ft away from our hut and the other huts. The kids play round that area all the time, I’ll be surprised if there’s anything still there.

‘I start with the heavy rake and on the second pass I drag out a mine. No resistance to the rake, it just slid out of the ground with ease.

‘Problem is though, straight away I realised this wasn’t a normal find around here. I’d never seen anything like it or heard of anything like this. It was big, about the size of a house brick and had multiple wires coming out from one side.’

Chris tells how he cordoned off the centre of the camp and having briefed colleagues, decided the best option was to blow up the mine with a shaped charge.

‘No point taking chances, too many wires and I couldn’t expose the det without running the risk of it going off,’ he says.

‘With everyone ready, I placed the charge onto the mine and retreated back to behind the old school building. I wired up the initiator and counted down from five.

‘The report echoed round the valley as the shaped charge detonated and drove the price of steel right through the mine. Once happy the area was safe P and I went back to inspect the mine.

‘The sandbags had completely contained the blast but were blown to bits. The mine was in 10s of pieces and had been driven into the ground by the force of the explosion.’

Chris first became interested in the plight of the Karen people in 2000. He explained: ‘I first came across it via a publication called Combat and Survival. My grandfather has a Burma Star medal and the interest grew from there.’

Civil war broke out between the government and the Karen and other ethnic groups soon after Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948.

Karen State now has a landmine problem matched only by Afghanistan. More than 150,000 Karen people have fled to refugee camps in Thailand.

Before he left for Burma in March Chris wrote: ‘People question why, still I don’t know how to answer. Even if I could, would I? What’s the point, who would understand – no one. The whole beauty of being what we are is that we are all different. No one walks, talks or ticks the same. I’m me, this is my life, this is how I choose to live it.’

Of the situation in Burma since military junta was disbanded and democratic reforms ushered in, Chris says: ‘It’s not as bad as it was but the Burmese are still attacking villages and building more army camps in the Karen lands. It’s typical that the international community turn a blind eye as normal. The Karen plight never really makes the news in the west.’

You can follow Chris’s blog at http://swampy.revive.im/

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