In the 1980s, it was in the interest of the Japanese Government to build three radar stations in the Maldives to track ships in Maldivian waters. While deciding where to base these stations, the first location considered was in Hdh. Hanimaadhoo. However, building there meant that the stations would have to operate under Air Maldives. To avoid this, the Japanese government decided to move the stations to Ha. Kelaa.
The work to build the radar station began in early 1985, and was completed at the end of the year despite the fact that progress was halted for about 6 months within that time period. During this time, 10 Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF) officers were stations in Kelaa to oversee the construction stage of the project.
Prior to the arrival of the full MNDF team, instructions were relayed to the island office in Kelaa to clear a road to the designated area. The area that was being cleared was a marshy area, and had to be filled with rock boulders from the beach, leveled off with a layer of soil on top. This work was done by the locals and supervised by two MNDF officers who went ahead of the others to provide instructions. The locals who worked on this project provided their hard manual labor for free, as ‘volunteers’. At the time, this was seen as rayyithu masakkaiy – work that almost had a sense of civic duty associated with it.
During the construction phase, there were some temporary buildings at the site that quickly became haunts for young locals. Back in the day, the youth of the island would walk all the way (about 2 km) to watch movies at the temporary buildings. At the time, there was no electricity on the island, let alone access to a television. These movie nights became a fast favourite, and many nights entire groups of friends would walk in the dark without any lights to go there. The really lucky ones would sometimes get to hitch a ride on the MNDF pick-up or lorry.
The end of the construction phase produced a three story prefab steel structure building with timber decking. The walls were made of lightweight aluminum panels. In addition to this building, a single story accommodation building with a tin roof was constructed. This building had one kitchen, two bedrooms, a storage area and an open bathroom area. This style of open bathroom is called gifili and it had a well, a washing area for clothes, and a concrete bench. The kitchen had a chimney made of solid blocks, which is still visible in photos like the one below (chimney on the top left).
The area was fenced off with metal posts and a barbed wire fence. Once everything was complete, the MNDF officers were stationed there for a few months. During their stay, three of the MNDF officers got married to locals, and two of them are still married and one of them still lives in Kelaa.
After their stationed duty, the guardianship of the radar station building was handed over to Seedhibey and the MNDF officers left. Seedhibey was picked as he was a good friend of the senior staff of MNDF. The MNDF officers never came back to claim the place, and later Seedhibey used the building to store coconuts that he collected from the Thundi area.
In the end, the Japanese government and Maldivian government abandoned the Kelaa Radar Station and installed the radar in Haminaadhoo Airport as originally planned.
The abandoned building slowly became a playground for the youngsters of the island. In the 90s, Kelaa kids and youth would cycle there during Ramadan evenings to play cards and pass time. The kitchen in the accommodation building was used to make food when they went on picnics. Somedays, they would just sit at the top of the three story building and watch the amazing scenery from the highest point on the island. The memories that many kids and youth of Kelaa created there are painted vividly with images of the open ocean on the east and the sandy beach and turquoise lagoon on the west.
Not all the memories of the abandoned buildings are sweet. Overtime, the building saw people come in to steal its aluminum sheets. It was also subject to vandalism and small acts of arson. Its neighboring single story building’s tin roof slowly gathered rust. Some of the metal posts were removed and repurposed as neru baththi – navigation lights in the sea. The barbed wire around the perimeter and the metal posts were used by islanders for different purposes. The place slowly went to ruin without anyone to look after it and without being protected from the elements.
Today only the metal frame of the radar building is left, rusted and exposed to weathering. Although the walls of the accommodation block still stand, they are covered with dense overgrowth.
Despite this, the stories that come with the Kelaa Radaru ge (radar station) are etched into the memories of many locals, both young and old. For its historical significance, and we would argue even its sentimental value, this place is worth some renewed attention. These structures can still be restored and developed as a tourist attraction as part of the Integrated Resort Project.
Historically significant sites such as these are unfortunately left to ruin on many islands of the Maldives, but we at IDEAS believe that the sentimental attachment to and purpose of a place can evolve and be redesigned over time. The building can be re-developed as a museum or cafe’, or could even become a watch tower to view some magnificent sunsets over the island and lagoon!
Once we pay attention to these places, and how local communities create meaning and memories from and in these places, the need to preserve and re-develop becomes increasingly clear. If we apply a place-making approach to these spaces, and involve community voices in the decision making, we can create meaningful places in communities that also have historical significance. The possibilities are endless! And as for what place-making approach means — let’s save that for another blog post!
Information sourced from Ahmed Hussain (Rinso) by H. Faarooq (Summer Home Kelaa) and Adam Saaneez
Written by Hulwa Khaleel
Aerial Photos by Ali Nazim
Landscape photos by Liushan