Sri Lanka Home­com­ing

For many Tamils, com­ing back af­ter years spent in refuge, home is where the heart is not.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mahrukh Fa­rooq

When Aru­lanan­dan Amalaraj re­turned af­ter spend­ing nearly two decades away from his war-torn vil­lage in Valalai, all he found were the re­mains of what once used to be his house. Piles of rub­ble lay scat­tered through­out the en­tire 95hectare vil­lage in the Jaffna dis­trict of Sri Lanka’s North­ern Province where Amalaraj’s vil­lage is lo­cated – an area which had been the cen­ter of years of bat­tle be­tween gov­ern­ment forces and the sol­diers of the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE). Through­out this time, Amalaraj was forced to live on the out­skirts of the dis­trict, scrap­ing a barely de­cent ex­is­tence for him­self and his fam­ily while liv­ing with his rel­a­tives in rented rooms and wel­fare cen­ters.

“When we re­turned two weeks ago, I saw only hills of rub­ble among the huge jun­gle trees,” laments Amalaraj, while look­ing over an area near an army base in neigh­bor­ing Palaly, where his an­ces­tral home was bombed from shelling that took place be­tween gov­ern­ment forces and the rebels. “The houses had no doors, roofs or win­dows. Some­times only a sin­gle wall was left stand­ing.”

For now, Amalaraj has built a tem­po­rary abode for his fam­ily made out of just tin sheets and tar­pau­lins, each day pre­sent­ing a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge to the 64-year-old man who now has to think of a way of pro­vid­ing for the daily needs of his fam­ily. “I will go fish­ing this af­ter­noon. I need to buy school shoes for my third daugh­ter,” says Amalaraj.

“But it is in the hands of God since I have caught noth­ing for the last two days.”

Amalaraj, his wife and four chil­dren are just one of hun­dreds of fam­i­lies re­turn­ing to their vil­lages af­ter Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena an­nounced in March ear­lier this year that Tamil fam­i­lies will be al­lowed to re­turn to the area af­ter nearly 25 years of mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion. Many have al­ready reached their des­ti­na­tions while thou­sands more wait for the gov­ern­ment to give them the green sig­nal so that they too can em­bark on their jour­ney home.

How­ever, the joy and ex­cite­ment of fi­nally get­ting the chance to come home is mixed with feel­ings of ten­sion and dread as many are com­ing back to find their for­mer homes com­pletely de­stroyed and the area to­tally un­in­hab­it­able. Faced with a lack of proper in­fra­struc­ture and zero avail­abil­ity of ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties such as run­ning wa­ter and elec­tric­ity, many fam­i­lies are forced to spend their nights out in the open as they work dur­ing the day to re­build their homes. “We found only the skele­ton of our house,” says Yo­ganathan, 67, a farmer who had re­cently, along with his wife, re­turned to the land on which they were born and raised, only to find their for­mer home in ru­ins. “My eldest son was killed in the war. My other three sons fled to Europe to es­cape the fight­ing. Now, it is just me and my wife who are try­ing to re­build our lives in this vil­lage.”

Since the civil war ended in 2009, amid nu­mer­ous al­le­ga­tions of war crimes against hu­man­ity by both gov­ern­ment forces and LTTE troops, the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment im­posed strict re­stric­tions on mem­bers of the Tamil com­mu­nity by seiz­ing large por­tions of their land and re­pur­pos­ing them as high se­cu­rity zones. Thou­sands of fam­i­lies still re­main cut off from their homes as many mil­i­tary camps con­tinue to op­er­ate in and around nu­mer­ous dis­tricts in the coun­try.

This has re­sulted in many res­i­dents be­ing un­able to re­claim their prop­erty in full. The 53-year-old Balasundaram Rasamalar is one of such res­i­dents; she faced an un­ex­pected prob­lem when she fi­nally got back her home in Varatha­laivila af­ter flee­ing the area in 1990 – the toi­let was still in the mil­i­ta­rized zone where civil­ians were not al­lowed. “I never thought we would get our land back,” says Rasamalar. “But we have to start our lives all over again.” Another vil­lager was faced with a sim­i­lar dilemma; he had got his wa­ter well back yet his house re­mained within the army-oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory.

Many vil­lagers have de­cried the ac­tions of the mil­i­tary who, in their view, have stub­bornly held on to pri­vate land for six years and who have set up lu­cra­tive ho­tels, restau­rants and farm­ing ven­tures, of­ten selling crops to the very peo­ple whose land they are cul­ti­vat­ing. Vil­lage chief S. Sugeerthan said that peo­ple were quite hope­ful when the gov­ern­ment be­gan hand­ing back mil­i­tary-oc­cu­pied land this year; yet, present con­di­tions leave much to be de­sired. “The mil­i­tary re­leased 600 acres here in March, but from that they took back a 40-acre en­clave for them­selves,” says Sugeerthan. “This has forced many res­i­dents to travel nearly 50 kilo­me­ters from one end of the vil­lage to the other – a dis­tance which is oth­er­wise just four kilo­me­ters.” In ad­di­tion, the ab­sence of vil­lage schools has re­sulted in chil­dren hav­ing no choice but to travel great dis­tances to con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion.

The army, on the other hand, in­sists that such ac­tions are what have re­sulted in peace and sta­bil­ity to the north. Ac­cord­ing to Bri­gadier Jayanath Jayaweera, nearly 19,158 hectares of land for­merly used as se­cu­rity zones have now been re­leased to their orig­i­nal own­ers. “Po­lice main­tain law and or­der in the for­mer war-hit ar­eas and no sin­gle act of terror has been re­ported since the end of the war,” says Jayaweera. “We main­tain army camps through­out the coun­try as part of our na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy. For­mer war zone ar­eas are very peace­ful.” Yet, civil rights ac­tivists re­main con­cerned that for­mer res­i­dents on their way back to the re­gion face a dan­ger­ous and rather un­cer­tain fu­ture. “There have been no ar­range­ments made for even tem­po­rary shel­ter,” says Ruki Fer­nando, an ad­vo­cate for mi­nor­ity rights in Sri Lanka, adding that women live in fear at hav­ing to sleep in open huts. “The reg­is­tra­tion of re­turn­ing civil­ians by the mil­i­tary is an alarm­ing in­di­ca­tor of con­tin­u­ing mil­i­ta­riza­tion and sur­veil­lance … even af­ter hand­ing over the land.”

Although the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment has won a lot of praise for ini­ti­at­ing the han­dover of thou­sands of acres of land fol­low­ing one of South Asia’s long­est and blood­i­est eth­nic wars that claimed over 100,000 lives. How­ever, Pres­i­dent Sirisena is still un­der a lot of in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to do more for the Tamil com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially with re­cent re­ports of the mil­i­tary ex­pand­ing its land hold­ings in the north, which has re­sulted in nearly 2000 Tamil fam­i­lies fil­ing cases against the army for the re­turn of their an­ces­tral lands. Keep­ing in line with the gov­ern­ment’s re­solve to re­store peace and sta­bil­ity to the re­gion, top civil ad­min­is­tra­tor in Jaffna, Na­galingam Vethanaya­han says re­set­tling in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple is key to the suc­cess of any rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. “We have had dis­cus­sions with the se­cu­rity forces and we ex­pect, with time, more land will be made avail­able,” he says, adding that he has asked UN agen­cies to pro­vide tem­po­rary shel­ters for peo­ple leav­ing refugee camps to take pos­ses­sion of lands re­leased by se­cu­rity forces.

Yet, for peo­ple like Amalaraj, there is a still long way to go be­fore the clouds of un­cer­tainty that hover over the fu­ture of his fam­ily be­gin to dis­si­pate. With no ac­cess to ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties such as food and shel­ter, the fam­ily of Amalaraj along with many oth­ers runs the risk of los­ing what­ever they have in the quest for a de­cent liveli­hood. Ac­cord­ing to the Amalaraj, it is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the gov­ern­ment to en­sure the safety and se­cu­rity of its peo­ple. “There will be no real peace or rec­on­cil­i­a­tion un­less the gov­ern­ment treats all of its cit­i­zens on an equal foot­ing and re­spects their civil rights.”

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