"There is a saying among deminers," the Indian official said. "It takes $3 to plant a mine and $300 to clear it."
Money is just a part of it; deminers have to have more than their share of patience. The Indians working for Sarvatra, a New Delhi-based NGO that has been carrying out demining projects in parts of Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north, should know about it.
The 100-odd Indians, mostly former army personnel, have been working here since 2003 – along with another Indian demining NGO, Horizon – and painstakingly clearing mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) like live grenades and IEDs.
A measure of how slow the process of demining could be is that the area cleared is calculated in square metres. "We have cleared an area of 139889550 square metres (139 square km) since 2003 (till 2009-end). Demining depends on the terrain, vegetation and climate. During the war, the pace of clearing mines was slow. We did not have access to many areas. Since May, 2009, after the war ended, the pace picked up," a Saravtra official said. On an average, only 8 square metres to 10 square metres of area can be checked and cleared daily.
HT spent a few hours in the jungles of Periyamadu, which the LTTE controlled till late 2008, where Sarvatra personnel were clearing mines. Parts of the jungle were dense. There were many abandoned homes and bunkers which the LTTE cadres used as fortification.
At work was 'Arjun', an excavator which a retired Indian army officer had modified into a special demining machine. The 'Arjun', given extra layers of iron and bullet-proof cabin for the operator, digs into the earth and brings the mines or UXOs to the surface for being defused. The machine also helps in clearing more area everyday than manually possible.
The Sarvatra team has recovered different types of mines used by the LTTE. "We found mines with names like Johnny 99 and Rangan and ones which had the stickers with names of soldiers like 'Major Illuwalathi'," the official added.
"They planted mines around houses, near water bodies and around approach roads the government troops could take. But the problem is that we don’t know exactly where the mines could be and we can’t leave anything to chance," the official said, adding that current priority was to clear residential areas so that the displaced could return.