About the Author: Emma Smith is an assistant program manager for Afghanistan, Sudan, and Sri Lanka in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
How many landmines does it take to cripple a community? In a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I was surprised to learn that the answer could be zero.
We visited the northern village of Marathanmadhu, which the Sri Lankan Army suspected to be filled with buried landmines — a deadly legacy in many parts of the country after a 20-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While the conflict finally ended earlier this year, residents of Marathanmadhu were among the approximately 280,000 Sri Lankans driven from their homes during the final round of fighting.
When our partners from Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British nongovernmental organization, came in to clear the mines, their survey team found that the village was actually not affected at all. This puzzled me. How could an entire village sit empty when it housed no real threat?
In Marathanmadhu and other areas formerly controlled by the LTTE, there are no records of where minefields were placed. As such, returning too soon to a village could prove fatal. With the perceived threat of landmines in or near one’s house, water sources, or children’s school, anyone would think twice about returning.
This is one of the challenges facing communities across Sri Lanka and in many post-conflict nations around the world, from Angola to Afghanistan, and why humanitarian mine action is key setting the stage for peace, stability, and political reconciliation.
Since 1993, the United States has been the world’s leading contributor to post-conflict efforts to remove landmines and unexploded munitions around the globe through the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action program, an interagency partnership that also includes the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program has delivered over $1.4 billion in aid to nearly 50 counties around the world for:
• Mine clearance projects by 63 partner organizations including groups like MAG, the Danish Demining Group, and Swiss Foundation for Mine Action;
• Mine-risk education to help area residents avoid injury by identifying potential hazards;
• Research and development into new demining technologies;
• Training local demining technicians in affected countries; and
• Supporting rehabilitation programs serving those injured by landmines and unexploded munitions.
The United States has provided $56 million in humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka in 2009, including $6.6 million in emergency funding for international humanitarian demining NGOs to clear landmines and unexploded ordinance and help displaced families return to their homes as safely and quickly as possible. This aid is in addition to $1.4 million to Sri Lanka in 2008, which funded efforts by a constellation of local and international NGOs to clear over 2 million square meters of land of abandoned landmines and unexploded munitions, allowing over 8,400 people to return home safely, according to the latest edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, an annual report from my office, the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
When time is of the essence and safe land for families to resettle is vital, even knowing that a village has not been contaminated by landmines is of critical importance. For villages like Marathanmadhu, this knowledge alone has already allowed 70 families to return to their homes with an anticipated 270 more on the way.