I admit I was slightly relieved when our armored car got stuck in a thick pool of mud about a quarter of a mile down the jungle road that led to the minefield. I had arrived in Sri Lanka just two days earlier, and everyone told me that a visit to the former conflict area of Kilinochchi was essential to understanding the Northern Sri Lankan experience. I, however, was growing increasingly nervous as our bumpy ride brought us closer to the fields where the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan military buried tens of thousands of compact but powerful mines as they advanced and retreated through the lives and lands of rural farmers during Sri Lanka's 27-year civil war. After all, our wonderful hosts at The HALO Trust had just finished recounting the alarming frequency of mine discovery in Kilinochchi: they dug more mines out of the ground in Sri Lanka during the first year of their program than all their other demining sites in the world put together.
I half-heartedly offered to get out and help push the car, but our clever driver managed to liberate our vehicle before I could pull off my armored vest and declare a premature defeat. As it turns out, I'm glad he did. Because I will never forget my walk through that field, where I watched unbelievably brave young women and men undertake some of the most dangerous work in the world -- with tools as small as a toothbrush and as simple as a pick -- in an effort to make the land safe for their neighbors and families. To date, the approximately 1,000 Sri Lankan employees of The HALO Trust have cleared 108,000 anti-personnel mines by hand. In 2011 alone, The HALO Trust's survey teams responded to 915 reports from local communities of unexploded ordnance, recovering over 6,000 items such as grenades, mortars and rockets.
Another amazing demining fact? It turns out there aren't any fancy scanners or high-tech mine removal gadgets that can compete with old-fashioned sweat, discipline, and patience when it comes to picking mines out of the ground. Our HALO hosts showed us how each employee is assigned his or her own lane, about a meter wide and cordoned off with string. I watched as young war widow (one of nearly 250 women employed at HALO) ran a simple metal detector over a thin strip of land. We didn't have to wait long before we heard the high-pitched whir indicating a metal object was in the ground just inches away from her plastic face guard. She carefully put down the detector, picked up a small hoe, and began digging fearlessly toward the offending area.
Katy Bondy, my guide, leaned over and whispered through her plastic mask: "Very exciting!""Yes," I whispered, as I slowly inched behind her. As luck would have it, our deminer unearthed a bottle cap.
I continued gingerly across the field to the remnants of a destroyed home. Several meters away, tattered yellow skull-and-crossbones warning tape divided HALO's field from a tarp home on the other side. The ruined home before me belonged to the family living under that tarp. It was clearly once a sturdy stone structure with steps leading to a raised floor and a hand-built well nearby. The house, yard and well were dotted with red stakes indicating where HALO had located and removed mines -- just below the last step leading down from the house, for example, or under the patch of ground where a child would stand to draw water from the well.
Looking across the field of red stakes, it was hard not to wonder what was left underground -- not just in this field, but across all of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. Landmines, of course, do so much more than kill and maim people. They cast a chilling shadow upon agricultural efforts, emotional and psychological healing, economic development and community cohesion. Their removal is essential to all other efforts that NGOs or the Sri Lankan government undertake in the area. It was humbling to spend an hour experiencing the kind of fear that Sri Lankans in Kilinochchi live with every day: the fear of uncertain ground.
The State Department is a proud funder of The HALO Trust in Sri Lanka. If you would like to learn more, please visit HALO's website.