On 20 May 2009, the Sri Lankan Government declared an end to more than two decades of armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been seeking a separate homeland, or ‘Eelam’, for Tamils in the north and east of the country.
Landmines were used to varying degrees by both sides at different stages of the conflict and continue to present an obstacle to the safe return of displaced families. Mines also block access to paddy fields, fishing jetties, grazing land and community infrastructure in villages throughout the North.
Most mines are of the anti-personnel type, sometimes laid in dense, patterned mine belts, but there is also widespread nuisance mine-laying in residential areas, a common tactic of the LTTE. In addition, unexploded and abandoned ordnance presents a threat across the North.
The phases of mine laying in Sri Lanka have followed the course of the war. In Jaffna, most of the minefields were well-structured belts; laid by government forces in the 1990s during successive advances across the peninsula to defend ground recaptured from the LTTE. In the face of this advance, the LTTE generally laid ‘nuisance minefields’, where the mines were laid at random, often around houses, and scattered over wide areas. Jaffna is a densely populated area and mine laying has affected both residential and agricultural areas.
During this same period extensive minefields were also laid by forces garrisoning ‘Elephant Pass’, the strategically important access-way linking the mainland and Kilinochchi District to the Jaffna Peninsula. Permanent Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) were later established by both sides in the lead up to the 2002 cease-fire agreement, and further fortified thereafter. The northern FDL stretches - in depth - across the neck of Jaffna isthmus. Meanwhile on the southern FDL, extensive mine-panels ran the breadth of the island - from the Mannar ‘rice-bowl’, across Vavuniya, and on to the coast of Mullaitivu.
In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the 2002 cease fire agreement and in the subsequent fighting the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) broke through the southern FDL and advanced rapidly across former LTTE-held territory. In 2008 the LTTE laid extensive minefields in an attempt to slow the SLA advance, particularly around their de-facto capital, Kilinochchi. As the pace of the conflict intensified, so the population displacement increased, and the LTTE retreated east to the coast, where the war finally ended in May 2009.
The number of mine casualties from 1985 - 2013 is reportedly around 22,000. The annual casualty rate rose in 2010 as the number of returnees increased significantly. The records suggest that people are most at risk when planting crops or when harvesting. Other high risk activities include collection of scrap metal and firewood, and whilst foraging, fishing or hunting. The numbers of accidents have declined gradually since 2010.
Sri Lanka has not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty.
Mineclearance in Sri Lanka has been shaped by the war with the LTTE.
Soon after demining started in 1999, it was halted by the fighting. When it resumed in 2002, the creation of the National Steering Committee for Mine Action (NSCMA) paved the way for a more concerted demining effort involving international NGOs, such as HALO. During the final phase of the conflict in 2007-2009 there was a further lull in mineclearance activity until the end of the war in May 2009, when HALO expanded operations to assist with the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of displaced families.
HALO’s approach is to use skilled survey teams to identify and prioritise problem areas, followed by well-targeted, systematic clearance, using complementary manual and mechanical clearance assets. Accurate survey and close liaison with local communities and government means that valuable clearance resources are deployed where most needed.
In 2002 emergency survey of Jaffna accurately identified the boundaries of hazardous areas in civilian-occupied areas. Indeed, it quickly became apparent which parts of the peninsula were mined and posed most danger to civilians. During the course of that survey, HALO gathered the socio-economic and technical data which enabled clearance tasks to be prioritised by humanitarian and development requirements. The emphasis for HALO was on accident prevention and to enable agricultural land to be returned to productive use.
Meanwhile, in Jaffna Town, many of the minefields consisted of defensive works built from the rubble of damaged buildings, which were then ‘seeded with mines’. Manual clearance alone in such conditions would have been difficult and in response, HALO deployed armored mechanical units in order to verify and inspect the ground more rapidly. HALO also focused its clearance assets on the densely laid mine-belts where the vast majority of mine accidents were then taking place.
Since the end of the war in 2009, HALO’s operations in Sri Lanka have expanded rapidly to respond to the need for resettlement of displaced families in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts. Using a small team of experienced expatriates, HALO has now trained 1,100 national staff, including 750 recent returnees, to conduct both manual and mechanical mine-clearance in their own communities.
Between 2002 and March 2014, HALO Sri Lanka has cleared over 909 hectares (2,246 acres) of minefields and over 1,650 hectares (4,077 acres) of systematic Battle Area Clearance whilst destroying over 178,000 landmines, 58,000 items of large calibre ammunition and 530,000 bullets. This work was focussed on over 580 mainly high density minefields and former battlefields. Our Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams working alongside the Sri Lanka Army Engineers have completed over 7,200 emergency ‘call-out’ tasks (including over 5,000 during the height of the IDP returns process).
Requirement for continued clearance
Minefield survey and clearance has been vital to facilitating the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people in northern Sri Lanka, and this continues to be the case, both for those displaced in the final phases of the war (2008-2009), as well as those forced out of areas such as Jaffna’s High Security Zones in the 1990s.
There is a continuing requirement for clearance around houses to allow people to move back home, as well as surrounding paddy fields, coconut plantations, grazing land and community infrastructure. HALO’s Workplans are devised through close cooperation with National Mine Action Centre and Regional Mine Action Office in conjunction with District Work Plans and with the Joint Plan for Assistance (JPA) for the Northern Province. Task Prioritisation is based on criteria set out specifically in the Government of Sri Lanka’s National Mine Action Strategy.
Within Sri Lanka, Jaffna and Kilinochchi districts remain the most affected by landmines. These districts fall within HALO’s Area of Operations (AOO) and will continue to be the focus of HALO’s future mineclearance.
During the ceasefire period from 2002 - 2008, HALO made significant progress in clearing the dense mine belts cutting across the peninsula, often running through villages and across valuable rice paddy. With the end of the war in 2009, the military–controlled High Security Zones and other restricted areas began to be reopened for resettlement. However, many of these areas were heavily mined during fighting in the 1990s and require survey and clearance before people can move back.
In addition to refugees, there are some 38,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Jaffna (referred to as old-caseload IDPs), most of whom have been living with host families or in welfare centres for the past 22 years. Clearance of the remaining minefields is vital to ensure that the peace dividend in Jaffna can be fully realised by ensuring the safe return of IDPs and removing restrictions on development.
KILINOCHCHI AND MULLAITTIVU
Although some mine contamination from earlier eras of the conflict (pre-2002 ceasefire) still exists in these districts, it is the contamination from the final phase of the war (2008-2009) that now poses the most immediate and significant threat to returning families. As most of the mines in Kilinochchi were laid by the LTTE after civilians were displaced, returning families are often not aware of where minefields have been laid.
Initially, HALO targeted its efforts around the town of Kilinochchi, where the LTTE laid dense minefields in 2008 in an attempt to defend their de-facto capital. Having cleared most of these minefields, HALO has continued to deploy teams in the populated communities across the district. There is a combination of scattered and patterned mine-laying, the majority of which is in villages, often around houses and within gardens. Residential areas are given top priority for clearance, followed by areas used for livelihood activity such as paddy cultivation and grazing.
HALO has made huge strides in the clearance of minefields in Karachchi Division and has begun clearance of the Forward Defense Line (FDL) in Pachchilapallai. This minefield formed the frontline between the SLA and the LTTE and was the focus for much of the conflict for over a decade. Many of the people returning to the FDL and the areas surrounding it have often not been able to return to their homes for over twenty years.
As HALO’s capacity has increased, HALO has begun clearance in Mullaitivu district. This has particularly focused on the Divisions of Thunukkai and Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK). With the resettlement process completed in Mullativu district, much of HALO’s present clearance is concentrated on affected areas to be used for sustenance of livelihoods.
THE EAST - BATTICALOA AND TRINCOMALEE
In 2007-2008, after government forces regained control of large areas previously occupied by the LTTE, the Government prioritised emergency demining as part of its “re-awakening of the East”. Clearance operations were largely directed by a timeframe to support resettlement, and great swathes of land were subject to Battle Area Clearance (BAC), but not necessarily mineclearance. The number of recorded minefields in the east is significantly lower than in the north, where the more intense fighting took place.
HALO Sri Lanka is supported by the United States Department of State Office of Weapons Removal & Abatement (PM/WRA), United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Governments of Japan and Norway.