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Thursday, October 4, 2012

“Nothing to call our own…” – The plight of the recently returned, resettled and landless IDPs in Sri Lanka’s North

Photo by author

 Recently returned to Puthumathalan
“As you drive past pile upon pile of corroding vehicles stacked one above the other, past pots, pans, sarees, slippers and plates (that once belonged to the people here), strewn all over the ground, and past the bullet and shrapnel splattered walls of homes ravaged by the war, on either side of the dusty, gravel roads of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK), you cannot help but feel the deep sadness and hopelessness that pervades the air around us.”


According to the government, Menik Farm has been closed and all it’s inmates resettled. Having visited some of the most recently resettled, this seems to be the case, except for the fact that many have been relocated and not allowed to their places of origin due to military occupation of their lands[1], whilst others who have been returned to their places of origin, have been left without proper shelter, income or basic infrastructure and resources, to fend for themselves.


Speaking to a settlement of recent returnees, we found that when these families are not confined to their huts as a result of the regular rains, they are outside clearing their land of brush and snakes, to make their environment more ‘liveable’. As for income, most families in the area walk or cycle for miles on end in search of their belongings and anything they can repair or sell, to make a living for themselves. (The going rate for 1kg of metal is said to be 40-50 rupees) Once they have collected as much as they’re able to carry, they start their long trudge back either by foot, bicycle or bus. We saw many people bearing sacks sitting by the roadside in the hope of a bus. Prior to their displacement, these very people, lived normal lives, much like anyone else, and were respectably employed. The absolute indignity that comes with having to scavenge around in search of scrap to sell, just to survive, has now become an average day in the lives of the recently returned population in the Vanni. Moreover, more than three years following the end of the war, their homes still resemble a war zone, where they are made to face the horrific memories of the past on a day to day basis.

We spoke to a few families who had been returned to their hometown in Puthumathalan after having spent 75 months at Menik Farm. On the 6th of September, 2012, they had been brought from the camp in CTB buses to a school in Iranapalai. There, they had been given two cooked meals, courtesy of a local Fishermen’s Association. Thereafter, for the next 2 days, the same Association distributed bread and dhal curry to the families as well. This however makes the statement by the Resettlement Authority Chairman, B. H. Passaperum, that the Government would provide resettled IDPs cooked food for a week[2], to be an outright lie.

Also whilst at the school, each family was registered by the CID, military and the Grama Sevaka (GS). Each family was made to hold up two boards, one with numbers and Sinhala letters and another, with only numbers, whilst a photograph was taken of the family. When we asked them what was written on the board, they said “as it was written in Sinhala we didn’t understand what was written on it, and were too afraid to ask any of the officials. Also, as there were so many of us, we were asked to hurry up and finish. We were also asked questions such as our personal details, if any of our family members had died or disappeared in the war, if anyone in our family was in the LTTE or was killed whilst fighting for the LTTE etc., ” said *Ramesh, a recent returnee. Ramesh was diagnosed with an abscess in his lung in January this year, when he was admitted at the Mulaithivu Hospital for 8 days. Father of a 2 ½ year old son, Ramesh still uses a puff, and is prone to bouts of lifelessness and fatigue.

The following day, on the 7th of September, 2012, the families had been dropped off at the Puthumathalan junction, and asked to walk to their homes from there. For those who had a heavy load, and lived nearby the junction, they had managed to request the accompanying lorries to drop off their belongings at their homes. On the same day, the military too had visited these families and taken photographs of each individual family again. Thereafter, no Government official has visited the camp to check up on their needs, to date.

Upon their return, each family was given a Household Ration Card (which entitles each family to rice, flour, pulses, oil and sugar) valid for nine months from the WFP, a Non-Food Items (NFI) Kit, a Tool Kit and Tarpauline from the UNHCR and a Shelter Assistance Kit (SAK) from DRC. Each family was also given financial assistance amounting to Rs. 20,000 from the UNHCR. “It rained hard on the day we returned home, so the left over rice we brought from the camp got completely wet,” said Ramesh.

Currently, six families (amounting to 18 individuals) reside in a 3 acres plot of land, within which approximately 15-20 bunkers are located. “Towards the end of the war, there were about 50 of us here, so we needed to have enough bunkers for everyone. When we left our homes on the 20th of April, 2009, we were practically living in these bunkers,” Ramesh added.

*Vijeyaluxmi’s (42) 14-year-old daughter was recruited by the LTTE on the 18th of March, 2009, and was never seen again. In 1997, her husband died of illness, leaving her to fend for their family alone. She now lives with her 15 year old son at this settlement. “Life is particularly difficult for us now that the monsoons have begun. A few days ago, water had risen above our ankles inside our huts, so we had to keep throwing out the water with buckets until the rain ceased. When we first arrived here, as none of the wooden posts had been set up, we just took shelter under the tarps and kept turning the water out of them, each time it rained,” she lamented.

There are now 7 children between the ages of 9 months and 17 living in this settlement. Having started school on the 17th of September, the younger children school at the nearby primary school, whilst the older children attend the Ambalavanpokkanai Kanishta Uyarthara Vidyalayam (up to O/L) located about 2kms away from their home.
“We have no electricity or running water, and most of the wells in the area are full of debris so we can’t access water from them. One well has water, but it too needs to be cleaned. For drinking water, we need to walk about 1km to a privately owned well and further away to another privately owned well near a military check-point, to bathe. As there is no enclosure for us to bathe, we go in to bathe in the evenings when it is dark. Approximately 200 people from the area use these two wells. We have no idea when we will be getting proper housing, electricity and water,” explained *Subharaj, another returnee.

There is one little shop in the area where people can buy knick-knacks and commodities such as soap, shampoo etc., and another shop near the junction where cooked food is available. However, for anything more, such as bread, rice, vegetables, fruits etc., they need to find their way to the main Puthukudiyiruppu town about 5-6kms away, to make their purchases. As they have only one repaired bicycle between the six families, this too is quite a burden on them. Though they are trying to repair old bicycles they’ve collected from the vicinity, they still need to go into town to purchase spare parts. Fishing and day labour were our two main sources of income before. But now, they have no work and no gear.

“We are very happy to be back home, but, we have come back to nothing. We have no homes, no jobs, no income, and absolutely nothing to call our own,” says Ramesh.

Recently returned to Valaignarmadam
“Three to four hundred boys from our neighbourhood were forcibly taken away by the LTTE, from our church (Holy Rosary Church), where they were seeking refuge during the last few months of the war in 2009. Priests tried to stop the LTTE from taking the boys, but they were not successful. Not much later, one Priest got caught to a shelling attack and lost a leg as a result. There were young boys hiding in our roof for days, afraid of being recruited,” remembers *Siva, a father of seven and recent returnee to Valaignarmadam in Karathuraipattu (Maritimepattu) GS Division, Mulaithivu.

Having returned to their home in Valaignarmadam in early September, 2012, after having been forced to leave it on the 18th of April, 2009, Siva returns to a skeleton of a house. All his windows, window panes, doors, most of his roof tiles, and his room full of fishing nets have all been looted from his home. “I have lost more than Rs. 600,000 worth of belongings, including my two boats,” he laments.

“In January 2007 after the New Year, the LTTE came to our home and wanted to recruit my daughter. My son, not wanting his sister to go, said to take him instead. He told me that he didn’t want to fight or kill and that he would ask to do whatever other work they wanted him to do. A few months later on the 12th of March, 2007, we heard on the radio that he had been arrested by the Army for smuggling goods for the LTTE. We never heard from, or of him again,” he added with tears in his eyes, his pain still raw.

“I still remember the day we left our homes in 2009. There were 13 families hiding in our bunkers. As we fled our homes, we passed our school grounds, which was littered with dead bodies. We also saw LTTE trucks collecting bodies and dumping them at the school grounds. Family members of those who were killed by gun fire or shells as they fled, were also forced to dump their loved ones at the school on their way out. I got all the families that were staying with us, into my two boats and we set off. The LTTE didn’t want us to leave and wanted us to follow them to Mullivaikal. They were shooting at anyone who tried to leave. Meanwhile the military stopped our boats and transferred us into trawlers bound for Pulmoddai. We were caught in the cross fire, and many were killed or drowned when their boats capsized. We were witness to all these horrific sights. My grandchild was only 3 days old when we had to leave our home,” reminisces Siva with a heavy heart.

Resettled at Thimbili Transit Camp pending return to Mullivaikal
“A little girl with open sores all over her body, clearly suffering from a bout of full blown chicken pox, joins her friends, who also barefooted, are bearing sticks in their hands and excitedly chasing away a snake from their backyard.” We seem to walk in on an average day at the IDP transit camp in Thimbili, Mulaithivu, where approximately 250 IDPs, some relocated from Mulliavaikal, and some landless, as of the 22nd of September, 2012.
“Having left our homes in Mullivaikal East on the 24th of April 2009, we have been living in displacement since then. My husband was injured, we were first taken to Pulmoddai and thereafter, my whole family was shifted to Menik Farm. We were the first batch of 70 to be brought to Thimbili from Menik Farm on the 20th of November, 2011, with more than 150 IDPs being relocated here subsequently. We were then told that we cannot return home, as demining activities are still ongoing,” explained *Vasanthamala.

Those displaced from Mullivaikal were given tokens on the 21st of September, 2012, and asked to go and clear their respective plots of land. “My husband went to see our land and once he returned shared with me what he saw. He told me that all the vehicles had been burnt and dumped near their land and that our home was destroyed but our land still there. The military had also told him to collect all our belongings from around our land and keep it within our premises, and not to take it out of the area. We have been told that we will be allowed to return home soon. . However, there are some people here who are landless who want to remain here,” she added.

Their main source of income at the moment comes from day labour, and they have just run out of the 9 months stock of dry rations provided to them since their relocation by the WFP. They were told to leave their sheds intact when they were leaving, as other IDPs would be brought in once they return home. They too have received Rs. 25,000 from the UNHCR and garden tools etc.,

“The primary school in the area opened about 5 months after our arrival, and as many people have been returned to Mullivaikal now, there’s only one teacher remaining to teach all 5 grades. Even the Principal has left. We bathe in the well just across the road from the camp, but have to walk about 1km to a private well to get drinking water,” said *Luxmi of their daily trials.

“When we were first brought here, we were told that this land was for us, but, no permits were given to us. We faced a lot of hardship when we came as only the huts had been erected. We had endure the insects, snakes and rain and clean up the forest land, so as to make it conducive for us to live with our families.

Plight of the landless at Thimbili
“Will they give us our land” questions *Rani, who was relocated at Thimbili on the 3rd of February, 2012. “ We got married whilst at Menik Farm, and as both of us were living with our respective families, me in Puthukkudiyiruppu and my husband in Mullivaikal, neither of us have any land. Therefore, we would like very much to remain here. When we were brought here, we were told that we could stay on, but so far, we’ve not received any documents in this regard. It was all jungle when we came. We cleared everything, dug a well but have no money to concrete it as yet, we also opened up a little shop so as to earn an income, but we are still not sure if we will be permitted to remain here,” says Rani.

Still recovering from the loss of their recently stillborn child, Rani laments, “we are so tired of packing up and moving around from place to place, we just want a place to call our own. Is that too much to ask for?”
(*Names have been modified to protect the privacy and security of the interviewees.) 
Authors: Marisa de Silva & Sr. Nichola Emmanuel