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