Mahamailankulam, Vavuniya: For a brief moment in time, one of the commonest scenes across the world is replayed on Wednesday morning – a ball is flung and an excited dog catches it in its mouth and human and ‘pet’ engage in a friendly tussle. This heartwarming human-dog encounter we are witness to is not in [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Together in trust

Kumudini Hettiarachchi witnesses the special bond between Alvin, a Belgian Malinois and Lance Corporal Nawarathne, who are Washington-bound for an award in recognition of their life-saving de-mining work in the north

Top dog & handler: Lance Corporal G.N.W.M. Nawarathne and Alvin at Mahamailankulam. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Mahamailankulam, Vavuniya: For a brief moment in time, one of the commonest scenes across the world is replayed on Wednesday morning – a ball is flung and an excited dog catches it in its mouth and human and ‘pet’ engage in a friendly tussle.

This heartwarming human-dog encounter we are witness to is not in a garden or a park but in the centre of a minefield in Mahamailankulam off the northern side of the Vavuniya-Horowpothana Road.

Just before the ‘play-treat’, handsome ‘Alvin’, a male Belgian Malinois, has walked down the demonstration site in the midst of the minefield under the expert guidance of Lance Corporal Gajasinghe Nawarathnalage Wasantha Mangala Nawarathne.

By the time we come upon the ‘Alvin-Nawarathne duo’ it is close to 9 and along with several other mine-detection dog teams they are already at work under a sun which does not seem to have any pity even that early in the day.

Instructing Alvin to keep to the right, Nawarathne slowly and gradually loosens his hold on the leash, allowing his beloved dog to gently cover every inch of the ground, step-by-step, nose to the ground. They are oblivious to the bird-calls or the orchestra of the cicadas for this is a dangerous job. Ten metres, Alvin proceeds, in the area demarcated to him, working from right to left. He is guided to return from the right which he has already found to be ‘free of mines’ for a pat from Nawarathne, before off he goes again.

It is slow, arduous and lethal work and for our benefit Alvin’s skills are showcased later at the demonstration site. Let out on the leash, Alvin, deeply attentive to every inflection of Nawarathne’s voice, moves along a line, comes back, and midway along his second trip, sits gently.

The look that passes between Alvin and Nawarathne has to be seen to send emotion coursing through the onlooker………fraught with tension the image freezes into place for the Sunday Times team, sweating profusely and weighted down by safety vests and heavy helmets all in blue.

It is a look of triumph and also absolute trust, as they await manual mine-clearers who are sappers (the name for soldiers in the Sri Lanka Engineers) to venture into the danger zone, once again a life-risking task and clear the mine for the benefit of civilians — men, women and children to go about their routines without fear of death or severe injury which often leads to serious disability.

The minefield, spanning an area bordered by the forward defence line and the jungle, close to the Madukanda tank is where about 500 families are eager to resume eking out a living by rearing a few goats or cattle and cultivating coconut and vegetables.

Absolute trust: Nawarathne and Alvin

This is the area through which the villagers have to pass, while children trudge back and forth to school and even use as their playground.

Impressive is the record of the Alvin-Nawarathne de-mining team which has travelled across the northeast making land available to the people. Working together since the end of 2011, the team has cleared a huge 73,340sqm so far, making nearly 500 ‘recoveries’ from Manthai in Mannar; Mahakachchikodiya & Kudakachchikodiya in Vavuniya; and Pudukuduirippu, Chundikulam, Maanthuwil & Waleimadavi in Mullaitivu.

These recoveries include 20 deadly rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs); 48 grenades; 137 anti-personnel (AP) mines; 24 unexploded ordnance (UXOs); 18 detonators; and 243 ammunitions.

“Good boy, good boy,” the terms of endearment flow from Nawarathne to Alvin seated by his side in a safe hut, slightly away from the minefield, as we chat after the mine-finding deployment. Curious about the commands, when asked, Nawarathne says that he and Alvin have an understanding between them. “Forsuk” is to sniff and go forward, he smiles, adding that Alvin will not tolerate anyone touching his handler in an aggressive manner and would show his displeasure immediately.

This 35-year-old Lance Corporal, who was chosen after rigorous training and a very stringent selection process, has been the sole handler, as should be, of Alvin who is just over seven years old.

Alvin born in the Netherlands in the home of Madison and Jessica Homan had originally been named Majesty. “His birthday is on June 9,” volunteers Nawarathne who is incidentally also June-born but on the 21st.

Has that aided the bond, we wonder, for we gather that Nawarathne is torn apart when family duties beckon him home to wife, Kalpana, 10-year-old son, Keshan, and seven-year-old daughter, Eshadi, in Aaththikulama, Galgamuwa and he is compelled to leave Alvin behind at the camp.

“They understand,” he says, when asked whether there is a tug-o-war between Alvin and his family for his affections and the family has a couple of dogs back home they love very much. Nawarathne’s face clouds over when we ask him whether there have been moments of distress and he recalls a time when Alvin got a tummy-ache and was kendiri-ganawa (moaning) in pain.

For Alvin, there seems to be much doggy-heartache when his beloved handler goes home on leave, however, short it may be. “He knows when I’m about to leave and looks forlornly at me,” says Nawarathne, adding that when he returns Alvin climbs up his body overjoyed. When the handler is on leave, a mine dog is not deployed, only fed and cared for by a sapper.

“Very happy and proud of Alvin,” is Nawarathne about the honour that is to be bestowed on them next month in Washington DC, not giving a thought to his own achievements.

(Next week: All about mine detection dogs & their handlers)

The awardLance Corporal G.N.W.M Nawarathne of 7 Field Engineer Regiment of the Army’s Sri Lanka Engineers (SLE and Alvin have been chosen as the ‘Team of the Year — 2016’ to receive the Mine Detection Dog Award of the Year — 2016.The US-based Marshall Legacy Institute (MLI), engaged in the provision of technical support for clearance of landmines worldwide, has bestowed this honour on the army de-mining team. Alvin and his handler Nawarathne will be the cynosure of attention at the ‘Clearing the Path’ gala celebration to be held on October 26 in Washington, DC, United States of America.

Announcing the selection of Alvin and Nawarathne for the ‘well deserved award’, the MLI has congratulated them for their dedicated work to ‘free Sri Lanka of the scourge of landmines and other explosives’, in a special letter sent by the MLI President to the Commander of the Army.

Army Commander Lieutenant General Crishanthe De Silva, while congratulating the team has extended his warm wishes to them. Similar wishes are being echoed by SLE Colonel Commandant Maj. Gen. H.C.P. Goonetilleke, Chief Field Engineer Maj. Gen. Dhananjith Karunarathne and Brigadier S.J.M.A.R. Seneviratne.

The MLI’s Board of Directors, presided by Perry F. Baltimore consists of 17 members, in addition to a seven-member International Advisory Committee and has been providing technical assistance to the Sri Lanka Army’s mine clearance operations since 2011.

It is not a first for Sri Lanka – in 2012, Ciro and its handler, Sapper D.K.N. Rohana, of the SLE received the same award in appreciation of their commitment to clearing a landmine-infested area of 9,570sqm, recovering 101 anti-personnel mines made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); three LTTE-produced hand grenades, one 60mm mortar bomb and two unexploded rocket-propelled grenade bombs.

The MLI having donated six mine-detection dogs to the Army through the US State Department in June 2011 offered the service of a Senior Dog Training Instructor from the Global Training Academy (GTA) for dogs. Both Alvin and Nawarathne have undergone specific training courses for three months at the Sri Lanka School of Military Engineering (SLSME) at Embilipitiya before they received the United Nations Accreditation Test to commence minefield clearance operations.



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