A hidden yet persistent danger prevents the safe return of displaced peoples to their communities in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Until 2009, the small island nation that sits off the coast of India was wracked with a brutal conflict that finally ended after twenty-five years. This civil war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) left nearly 70,000 civilians dead and an estimated one million people displaced.
Both sides to the civil war laid hundreds of thousands of mines to inhibit the opposing sides’ movement or to disrupt the transport of troops and supplies. Now, a decade later, the scars of war and conflict linger through the presence of extensive minefields and other explosive hazard contamination left behind by the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. Through continued government commitment and support of donors like the United States, Sri Lanka should become mine-impact free only a few years from now. The removal of landmines not only serves as a necessary step to achieving the Sri Lankan Ministry for Resettlement’s goal of ensuring a safe return for internally displaced persons and refugees, but also removes an obstacle to reconciliation and reduces social tension between communities. According to the Sri Lankan government, over 35,000 displaced persons are still living in camps awaiting return to their communities. This resettlement is contingent upon access to cleared land that has been made safe for shelter, sanitation, and agricultural cultivation.
Since 1995, the U.S. government has provided more than $73.2 million to Sri Lanka to support conventional weapons destruction, the majority of which is used for the survey and clearance of land contaminated with landmines and other explosive hazards. Additionally, a new project is improving the physical security and stockpile management of Sri Lankan Army weapons depots. In 2019 alone, the Department of State provided over $9.5 million through partnerships with Mines Advisory Group (MAG), The HALO Trust, and a national operator, Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony (DASH), to rid Sri Lanka of the threat from landmines. Globally, the United States has funded more than $3.6 billion in conventional weapons destruction projects in over 100 countries since 1993.
I visited Sri Lanka in October 2019 and had the opportunity to observe firsthand the U.S.-funded field operations in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Deminers work long hours in blistering tropical heat to first clear vegetation and remove topsoil manually and with mechanical tools. They then clear the uncovered landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) so that sites can be returned to the local population for residential, agricultural, and economic development. Many deminers are former fighters or war widows and are often the sole breadwinners for their families.
At one of the clearance sites, I spoke with a local priest who expressed his sincere gratitude for the work of U.S. Department of State-funded demining projects. Over the summer of 2019, Department of State-funded HALO Trust teams were working nearby and noticed residents walking along a precarious path through contaminated land in order to reach their temple to worship. The HALO Trust approached the priest and requested permission to clear the land, which he graciously provided. HALO Trust then identified landmines laid next to the foundation of the temple and immediately undertook clearance operations. Today, worshippers from across the community can access the temple without fear of injury or death. The priest subsequently noted that so many people are now returning to worship that he is constructing an addition to the temple to accommodate them, something that was only possible thanks to HALO Trust’s efforts to clear the land.
The Department of State also supports local operator DASH to build a national capacity in Sri Lanka to deal with the landmines, which may remain long after international assistance draws down. This support also provides valuable skills (including driver training, computer proficiency and English literacy) to local populations in areas where other employment opportunities are scarce. DASH adopted and deployed a modified tool called the Rake Excavation Detection System (REDS). REDS was initially developed by the Sri Lankan Army for use in military operations and subsequently adapted to humanitarian demining operations by Norwegian People’s Aid. This affordable and efficient tool is used to search for landmines and ERW in sandy areas where other manual or mechanical techniques may not be as effective, increases the amount of work per unit of time, and reduces strain on deminers. DASH has since trained HALO Trust and another local operator, SHARP, on the use and deployment of REDS to support humanitarian demining operations.
The Department of State’s investment in clearing landmines from the civil war in Sri Lanka demonstrates our commitment to supporting the Government of Sri Lanka achieve its goal of becoming mine-impact free. This support allows displaced peoples to return to their homes and communities in Sri Lanka and strengthens the United States’ bilateral relationship with the island nation.
About the author: Aimee Falkum is an Assistant Program Manager in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.