Can rec­on­cil­i­a­tion heal Sri Lankan war wounds?

Af­ter 25 years, fam­i­lies are fi­nally al­lowed to re­turn home to rebuild ‘bro­ken hearts and minds’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­NIE GOWEN an­nie.gowen@wash­post.com Aman­tha Per­era con­trib­uted to this re­port.

PALAI VEEMANKAMAN, SRI LANKA — When Parameswari Uthayaku­maran saw her house last month for the first time in 25 years, she stood in the rub­ble and wept.

All her be­long­ings, the doors, even the tiled roof had been stripped away. She had last seen the house in Novem­ber 1990, when her fam­ily fled from Sri Lankan gun­ships bear­ing down on her neigh­bor­hood, fir­ing from the sky and lit­ter­ing the grass with leaflets telling Tamil fam­i­lies to leave the area. She had time to grab only a bit of sugar and tea.

The Sri Lankan army de­clared the area a high-se­cu­rity zone, and the gov­ern­ment only al­lowed fam­i­lies to re­turn in April, six years af­ter the end of the civil war that claimed more than 80,000 lives.

“The mo­ment I saw this I couldn’t con­trol my­self,” Uthayaku­maran said on a re­cent hot day, weep­ing anew. “The whole area had grown up, just like a for­est.”

Since tak­ing of­fice in Jan­uary, Sri Lanka’s new pres­i­dent, Maithri­pala Sirisena, has said that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in the coun­try’s north and east — rent by nearly three decades of con­flict be­tween mil­i­tary forces and a vi­o­lent in­sur­gency of eth­nic mi­nor­ity Tamils — is among his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s top pri­or­i­ties.

Speak­ing at an event hon­or­ing sol­diers last month, Sirisena said that although the dam­aged build­ings and de­stroyed roads have been re­built, there has been no rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process to “rebuild bro­ken hearts and minds.”

Sirisena’s gov­ern­ment has be­gun re­turn­ing land to fam­i­lies whose prop­erty is still be­ing used by the mil­i­tary, as well as re­set­tling those re­main­ing in dis­place­ment camps or living with rel­a­tives— of­fi­cially about 13,000 fam­i­lies, although civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists say the num­ber is higher.

He has pledged a do­mes­tic in­quiry into the wartime be­hav­ior of the Sri Lankan mil­i­tary and their op­po­nents, the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam — the U.S.-des­ig­nated for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion that fought for years for a sep­a­rate home­land. Sirisena’s gov­ern­ment suc­cess­fully ar­gued, with the sup­port of the United States, to de­lay un­til Septem­ber the re­lease of a U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights re­port on pos­si­ble wartime atroc­i­ties so it could bet­ter co­op­er­ate with in­ves­ti­ga­tors. And it is set­ting up an of­fice in the north to help thou­sands of war wid­ows like Uthayaku­maran.

But Tamil lead­ers are not con­vinced that th­ese ef­forts will be enough to unify the Tamil and Hindu north and east with the ma­jor­ity Sin­halese Bud­dhist south. They say that they are con­cerned that Sirisena’s moves are sym­bolic and don’t ad­dress is­sues such as the Tamils’ de­sire for greater au­ton­omy and the with­drawal of troops.

“It’s too early,” said Ku­mar­avadi­vel Gu­ru­paran, a law lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Jaffna and a spokesman for the Tamil Civil So­ci­ety Fo­rum. “Un­less you ad­dress th­ese is­sues head-on, you’re not go­ing to see any true progress.”

New bricks have patched up the walls of the his­toric fort in Jaffna, the largest city in the is­land na­tion’s north, where the civil con­flict was cen­tered. But the darker out­lines of the orig­i­nal bombed-out struc­ture re­main. In the six years since the Sri Lankan army de­feated the rebels on a beach in Mul­laitivu 70 miles away, a mea­sure of sta­bil­ity has re­turned.

The “war tourists” who used to ar­rive by bus­loads have been shooed out of the rail­way sta­tion, where they once spent the night. The sta­tion has a fresh coat of paint and re­ceives the re­gion’s newnorth-south train, the Queen of Jaffna, which made its in­au­gu­ral run in the fall on tracks that had been closed since 1990.

The coun­try’s pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent, Mahinda Ra­japaksa, poured mil­lions into re­con­struc­tion and al­lowed pro­vin­cial coun­cil elec­tions for the first time in years in 2013. But crit­ics say Ra­japaksa — an au­to­crat in power for nearly a decade — did lit­tle else to salve the deep wounds.

Likely abuses by both sides

In 2011, a U.N. panel found likely hu­man rights abuses by both sides in the con­flict, par­tic­u­larly in the wan­ing days of the war when an es­ti­mated 40,000 civil­ians died. The Sri Lankan army re­peat­edly shelled no-fire zones, hos­pi­tals and sup­ply lines, while the LTTE used civil­ians, in­clud­ing chil­dren, as hu­man shields and forced them into mil­i­tary ranks, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The Sirisena gov­ern­ment pledged to set up a “do­mes­tic mech­a­nism” to in­ves­ti­gate th­ese al­leged abuses and said it will ac­cept “tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance” from the United Na­tions.

But the Tamil mi­nor­ity is skep­ti­cal be­cause ear­lier pan­els have borne scant fruit and the vic­tims have not been con­sulted on the process, Gu­ru­paran said.

Mean­while, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the thou­sands who dis­ap­peared dur­ing the fight­ing is con­tin­u­ing. And the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to find ways of help­ing the large num­ber of war wid­ows — among 31,000 fe­male heads of house­hold in the Jaffna dis­trict alone, ac­cord­ing to Navarat­nam Ud­hayani, Jaffna’s dis­trict co­or­di­na­tor for women. Many of them can’t find suit­able jobs to sup­port their fam­i­lies and must deal with cul­tural norms that frown upon re­mar­riage. TOP: Guren­dran Gay­athri stands in­side the re­mains of her child­hood home. The Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment be­gan al­low­ing fam­i­lies to re­turn to the area in April, six years af­ter the end of the civil war. ABOVE: Sri Lankan boys, their faces painted for a per­for­mance, wait for their train to Colombo to de­part from the Jaffna sta­tion. The Queen of Jaffna made its in­au­gu­ral run in the fall on tracks that had been closed since 1990. For more pho­tos, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/world.

Si­va­palu Le­vathi­ammah, 57, a war widow, lives in a three-room house with a cor­ru­gated tin roof in a small vil­lage on the out­skirts of Jaffna.

She has strug­gled to sup­port her chil­dren, pick­ling seafood since her hus­band died in the con­flict. She is con­tin­u­ing to search for her son Si­vanasan, a fish­er­man she be­lieves was taken by the army in 2009.

“I have dreamed my son came to see me, hugged me and asked for rice and curry,” she said. “I have this dream at least two times in a month.”

Com­pli­cated process

The gov­ern­ment’s process of re­turn­ing land has been com­pli­cated, with only about 1,000 acres re­turned so far.

That’s a small frac­tion of the nearly 10,000 acres of pri­vate land the gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates is still in the hands of the mil­i­tary, ac­cord­ing to Ran­jini Nadara­japil­lai, the sec­re­tary for the coun­try’s Min­istry of Re­set­tle­ment. Ac­tivists think this num­ber is higher.

The process has been com­pli­cated by the fact that the Ra­japaksa-era mil­i­tary went on its own build­ing spree af­ter the war’s end, erect­ing new camps, beach­front ho­tels and even golf cour­ses for its own use.

Since the gov­ern­ment per­mit­ted Uthayaku­maran and her neigh­bors to re­turn to their homes in April, the neigh­bor­hood has taken on a new life. Res­i­dents come from far away ev­ery day to clear the land of brush. The sound of chain saws rings through the air.

The gov­ern­ment is sup­posed to have given th­ese re­turnees about $280 each, but so far they say they have re­ceived only $100 to clear their own land. Here and there, warn­ing posters con­tain­ing pho­tos of land mines are placed on fences, in­clud­ing tele­phone num­bers to call if the ob­jects are found.

Uthayaku­maran said she is hope­ful that her neigh­bors will also re­turn to the once-pros­per­ous com­mu­nity of ce­ment fac­tory work­ers, teach­ers and other mid­dle-class res­i­dents.

“I’m so much hap­pier now that I’ve come to my own house,” she said.

Ev­ery day, a lo­cal Hindu priest comes to do the tra­di­tional “puja” bless­ing at the neigh­bor­hood’s small tem­ple, crown­ing the ele­phant head god Ganesh statue with flow­ers, burning in­cense and chant­ing an­cient mantras.

When K. Gane­shamoor­thy Sarma, 70, first ar­rived April 21, the lot was so over­grown it could be reached only by a cat­tle trail to a nearby pond. He was re­lieved to see the 350-year-old banyan tree and the worn gran­ite Ganesh still tucked in its mas­sive roots.

Now, the re­turn­ing neigh­bors come by for his bless­ing, the first step to­ward re­build­ing their com­mu­nity. The gov­ern­ment has promised to pro­vide them wa­ter and elec­tric­ity, he says, “so they feel there is hope.”

PHO­TOS BY PAULA BRONSTEIN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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