» Introduction » Milinda Moragoda Institute for People’s
Empowerment gets involved in de-mining
» Clearing Mines in Vavuniya » Further De-mining Work in Vavuniya
and New Work in Mannar
» A Description of the De-mining

» Types of Mines used in Sri Lanka
» The Challenge Ahead  


The use of landmines has been condemned worldwide as indiscriminate and brutal. Internationally, significant results have been achieved in banning both production and use of this weapon. However, regrettably, they are still in use in many parts of the world as is the case in Sri Lanka, where the weapon has been used extensively in various forms over more than twenty years of war and conflict in the North and East.

The effects of the war have been devastating for the 2.5 million people living in those areas. Today a trip to Jaffna, Chavakachcheri or Killinochchi demonstrates only too well its effects. Over sixty thousand people have lost their lives to the war and over one million people were forced to leave their homes creating a massive exodus either to other countries or to other parts of Sri Lanka.The task of bringing back these internally displaced persons (IDPs) to re-house them and create meaningful jobs for them will be a long-term task. For many of them, they have no hope of returning to their homes until the mines are cleared from the war zone. Many of these displaced are farmers.

It has been estimated that some 1.5 million mines have been laid in wide areas of the North and the East. The Sri Lankan Army alone holds receipts for the purchase of 900,000 mines and the number of LTTE mines (often home-made) are unknown. On the plus side, the Sri Lankan Army has kept good records of where minefields have been laid. On the negative side, the pace of progress is slow due to the dangerous and painstaking nature of the work which can only be speeded up with an increase in resources and trained personnel.

Milinda Moragoda Institute for People’s Empowerment gets involved in de-mining

The ceasefire that came into effect after the signing of the MOU between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in February 2002 created the space necessary to commence humanitarian de-mining in the former war-afflicted areas of the North and East. As one of the government representatives involved in establishing the ceasefire and involved in the peace process, Milinda saw at first hand the devastation caused by the war. He strongly felt that de-mining was a critical measure that had to be urgently undertaken as an important part of the process of restoring normalcy to the war-affected areas.Therefore, through his Institute, the Milinda Moragoda Institute For Peoples’ Empowerment (MMIPE), a registered non-governmental organization, he helped set up a pilot project on ‘Mine Action Cooperation’ in 2003 with the financial assistance of the government of Norway and the technical co-operation of Indian experts. The primary objectives of the project were to resettle displaced persons, to strengthen Indo-Lanka co-operation and relations and to build local expertise and skill in de-mining techniques.

The MMIPE Humanitarian de-mining programme is headed by Ambassador Nanda Godage, a retired distinguished foreign service officer and former Sri Lankan ambassador to the European Union. He is assisted by Mr. Imtiaz Ismail who has extensive private-sector experience.

Clearing Mines in Vavuniya

The Institute began the task of humanitarian de-mining in the Vavuniya District in August 2003, in association with Sarvatra and Horizon which are Indian NGO’s involved in de-mining. These two NGOs which are two headed by retired senior Indian military personnel and whose staff include de-mining experts, not only carried out the de-mining but also engaged in recruiting and training local MMIPE personnel in this activity. At the beginning fifty-one local personnel were first trained.

Along with their trained groups of energetic and young MMIPE de-miners, Sarvatra and Horizon undertook to clear mines in two villages in Vavuniya, Sarvatra in Salambaikulam, and Horizon in Kurukkalputhukulam. The Sarvatra team was headed by retired Brigadier S. Brar, and Horizon’s team was headed by retired Major General Sashi Pitre, both from the Indian Army.

In Salambaikulam an area of 203,000 sq meters was successfully cleared of mines, while in Kurukkalputhukulam, another 167,500 sq. metres of land were successfully cleared during the first phase of the project. The handing over of these two mine-cleared areas, took place on 31 November 2004. Since then the residents of these two areas have been able to return to their homes and to begin to rebuild their lives.

In total, Sarvatra was able to clear 35 anti-personal mines, 3 anti-tank mines and 45 unexploded ordnances (UXOs) at Salambaikulam, while Kurukkalputhukulam had been cleared of 1,667 mines and 3 UXOs by the Horizon team. The latter team consisted of 32 de-miners and two trained dogs, named Akash and Prithvi.

All de-mining work carried out by the teams is conducted according to international standards. Quality assurance and accreditation of the de-mined areas is carried out by the National Steering Committee on Mine Action (NSC-MA) Sri Lanka under the guidance of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In fact, during the process of their work, Sarvatra redesigned and adapted several tools commonly used in de-mining which are more efficient, economical and better suited to the terrain of Vavuniya than existing tools. These developments included improvements to de-mining tools such as the anti-mine roller, raker, vegetation cutter and leveling blade, all of which can be used in similar terrains elsewhere. Sarvatra also designed a special mini two-cylinder excavator. These improvements have been commended by the UNDP as well as by the National Steering Committee on Mine Action (NSC-MA) Sri Lanka.

While carrying out their de-mining duties, the MMIPE and the Indian teams endeavoured to build good relationships in the areas in which they worked and to bridge ethnic and religious differences of the inhabitants in these areas. The de-mining teams themselves set a good example of national unity and international co-operation, as they were comprised of Indians coming from a large number of different regions of India, speaking different languages and with different customs and beliefs, working alongside their Sri Lankan colleagues towards the common goal of de-mining to make areas safe again.

Horizon and Sarvatra each donated funds towards the reconstruction of the Etambagaskada Buddhist temple in the Vavuniya District which had been damaged in the conflict. In addition, Horizon gifted a bell to a Hindu temple in Poovarasankulam in the Vavuniya Disrict, while the Milinda Moragoda Institute contributed towards the rebuilding of the mosque in Salambaikulam.

Further De-mining Work in Vavuniya and New Work in Mannar

In early 2004, Horizon moved onto Mannar, to carry out de-mining in the villages of Thomaspuri, Sugandhapuri and Venkali. In these areas, an extent of 65,806 sq meters was cleared of mines during 2004. In total, 1,974 anti-personal mines, 16 UXOs and 162 loose detonators were recovered.

Sarvatra continued to carry out further de-mining work in Vavuniya in the area of Muniyamadu West. With a small team of trained de-miners from MMIPE, they managed to clear an area of 15,514 sq. metres and recovered 47 anti-personal mines in 2005.

Following the clearing of Muniyamadu West, a team of 30 MMIPE de-miners began work in Muttur, in Vavuniya. Unfortunately, due to the increasingly dangerous situation which arose following the Presidential Election of November 2005, the work has had to be temporarily halted.

A Description of the De-mining Process

De-mining is a very slow process. Before mine clearing operations can begin, a technical survey and a careful mapping out of the area to be de-mined must take place. Boundaries of an area are marked out and allocated to each de-mining team.

The next step is the clearing away of vegetation. In some instances during this process the teams may come across heaps of rubble. Teams need to exercise great caution in clearing the upper surfaces of the ground before the actual mine clearing process can begin.

Each de-miner then further prepares the ground for the work. Painstakingly they use a sharp pointed object to probe the ground upto four centimetres deep. Once they have completed this the top four centimeters of earth are raked away revealing the next level. Then a further four inches is probed and raked. Finally the teams will remove upto 13 centimetres of earth with heavy machinery, just to be absolutely certain that no mines are left.

During this process de-miners have to cover each square centimetre of the ground very methodically. If they come across a suspicious object, they have to carefully remove the soil around the object until they can determine what it is. If it is a mine, then a specialist is called in for its removal. All the mines collected in one day are later exploded in a safe area. Upto the year 2003, as part of the UNDP approved procedure for mine clearance, it was required to run a metal detector over the entire area cleared. However, now metal detectors are required only for battle area clearance. In such cases, this means that every metal object whether an old nail or a bottle-top needs to be removed.

When teams are working in areas where anti-personnel mines are known to be embedded, they use rakes, carefully inching their way forward. All team members are expected to wear special protective clothing including a face mask, body armour and special boots. The thickness and design of the soles of these boots help deflect the blast if a de-miner happens to step on a mine. Due to the painstaking effort and professionalism of the staff this fortunately has never occurred.

After an area has been carefully covered in the above described manner, a team member with a metal detector will cover the area once more. Finally, a bulldozer may be used to complete the check. A question often asked is why a bulldozer cannot be used from the start. The primary reason is because areas might have anti-tank mines or improvised explosive devices which would harm the operator and damage the bulldozer. The second reason is that the mines while usually buried about five to eight centimetres under the surface, are sensitive to the pressure of a foot (a small surface area) but may not be sensitive to a bulldozer passing over. In other words, if a bulldozer is used at the beginning of the process, the mine might not explode but instead be compacted further into the surface only to reappear years later as an innocent farmer tills his soil.

De-mining teams generally work for stretches of twenty minutes followed by ten-minute breaks to ensure peak concentration. Their day typically begins at 7:00 am. At noon they halt their work for lunch and a break during the hottest hours of the day. They begin their work again at 4 pm and continue until 6:30 pm.

Types of Mines used in Sri Lanka

The types of anti-personal mines found in Vavuniya, come from Pakistan, China and Italy. They include the P4 MK 1 from Pakistan, the VS50 from Italy and the 72A from China. The LTTE produced two types of mines, the wooden ‘Johnny 95’ and the plastic ‘Johnny 99’. The former looks like a wooden box and can blow a leg off upto the knee. Other mines the teams have to contend with are the US-built Claymore Mine (M18A1), and anti-tank mines such as the P2 MK 1 from Pakistan and the Amman 2000 built by the LTTE.

The Challenge Ahead

The task remaining to be carried out is massive. In order for Vavuniya to be declared safe for farming and everyday life, a total of approximately 3 million square metres needs to be de-mined in an area that affects 42 villages. At the current rate of progress, according to current estimates, it will take up to 28 years to clear the mine-affected areas of the North and East. The Sri Lankan Army, LTTE, the HALO Trust, and the UNDP are working on other sites in these areas.

It is not easy to speed up the process of de-mining. Each team has to be well- trained, equipped and paid for the extremely dangerous work. Very often international assistance is required to increase competency and this can prove to be quite expensive.

During previous harvests following the ceasefire, there were reports of good record rice harvests. This was in part due to the ability of villagers from the North and East to return to their farm lands which had been cleared of mines after the ceasefire. However, it is unfortunate to note the increase in skirmishes and other serious incidents which have been intensifying in both the North and the East since late 2005, some of which included attacks in which mines have been used.