In 2009 the Sri Lankan Government declared an end to decades of armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The bitter civil war arose out of ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast. Around 80,000 people are thought to have died and some 300,000 people were displaced.
Landmines were used in vast quantities by both sides at different stages of the fighting in the north. From 2010 to 2012, HALO deminers removed over 30,000 mines a year. By 2014 the total had fallen to 16,000 annually, but those remaining threaten the most economically vulnerable people in the country. Mines present an obstacle to the safe return of internally displaced people (IDPs) and prevent access to paddy fields, fishing jetties and grazing land affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people.
HALO remains the largest international mine action operator in the country. Our 460 staff, including a large proportion of former IDPs, work in the Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts. Fifty percent of our deminers are women, many of them war widows with children to support.
Our efforts initially focused on clearing mine belts across the Jaffna peninsula, however with the cessation of hostilities in 2009 HALO expanded south into the formerly LTTE-controlled districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.
Since 2002, manual and mechanical clearance teams have cleared nearly 11.5km² of minefields and 16.5km² of former battlefield areas. We have destroyed over 200,000 landmines, 660,000 bullets and 65,000 other items of unexploded ordnance (UXO), including 400 improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We assisted with over 7,200 emergency reports of UXO found. Over 160,000 people have returned to areas deemed safe by HALO.
In 2013 we conducted a survey for the government to gain an accurate picture of the remaining problem outside the traditional areas of operation. HALO will be at the forefront of survey and clearance efforts as the final areas of army-held land are released, allowing people safe access to hundreds more acres of land in the north and east and enabling the remaining 30,000 IDPs to return home. The Sri Lankan Government has set a target of being mine-impact free by 2020.
We are aiming to improve the lives of some 90,000 direct beneficiaries in the next two years. A third of these need cleared land to return to their homes.
The support of the governments of the UK, USA and Japan has been essential in achieving success to date, but more needs to be done. HALO’s staff numbers in Sri Lanka have dropped by over 60% since 2014 but we have the equipment and experience to rebuild our demining capacity to over 1,000 national staff. The Sri Lankan Government has set a target of being mine-impact free by 2020. With the right funding this is an achievable goal.