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Resettlement, Reconciliation ‘in limbo’

Reportage from post-war Sri Lanka: Another ‘white flag’ shooting claimed (1)

by Yu-Kyung Lee, Sri Lanka, 20 November 2010

Men in uniform, mainly young soldiers holding AK 47, are seen all around northern Sri Lanka, from Mannar in north-west to Mullaitivu, the last battle field in north-east. In Mullaitivu, there are said to be more soldiers than civilians.

At the Omanthai military check point in Vavunia district, passengers are stopped to have their ID checked. Those travelling from Vavuniya town, only 4-5 kilometres away, have already had the same ID card checked three times. Those travelling to or from Jaffna — the capital of the Northern province — have their belongings searched.

“Don’t worry, [they’re] just checking”, one cheerful Tamil man was trying to comfort me in a bus heading for Jaffna. “Peace has come. You can go everywhere.”

However, “everywhere” is not for “everyone”. At Omanthai checkpoint, foreigners are turned back if they don’t have a clearance from the Ministry of Defense. I phoned the Ministry beforehand and was told I would be allowed to travel by land. At the checkpoint, however, I was turned away for lack of a pass to show. Foreigners are generally only able to visit to Jaffna by air. Little wonder they do not want foreigners to travel on the heavily militarized A9 road, which stretches out through the war-ravaged north.

The road from Mannar, the capital of the Mannar district, to Vavuniya has many military posts. In Mannar district, armed soldiers stand on street corners of alleys or in middle of the road in small villages as well as towns.

“Go that way”, “Come this way” and “Open your bag” are the only words in Sinhalese — the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority — that most Tamil villagers in the area understand. Soldiers stationed in the area speak hardly any Tamil. With communication often impossible, checkpoints were volatile point during the war. Some people were seen for the last time at a checkpoint, never to return.

“My husband was seen last at the army checkpoint in 2007”, 33-year-old Anoja (name changed) said. “The next day, I went to the checkpoint with my neighbor, who speaks Sinhalese, to ask where my husband was.

“A soldier told us we can come inside to check. We were scared, so we left”

Anoja showed all sorts of papers issued by police, the Human Rights Commission and human rights groups, all of whom she has reported her husband’s case to.

photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Another woman from the same village has been looking for her missing brother since 2007, when he was last seen at a checkpoint. The 35-year-old woman lost her mother, elder brother and sister when all were shot dead by the Sri Lankan Army in early 1990s.

The military’s heavy presence in the north has, ironically, grown drastically after the more than three-decades-long war ended. Whereas the resettlement in the north of Tamil ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs), which is supposed to be a top priority in the post-war era, is developing at a snail’s pace at best. About 300,000 Tamils were held in IDP camps at the end of the war.  

All aid provided to help resettlement is overseen by the “commander in charge” of the area. Aid items have to go through army checkpoint set up at the entry of each resettled area. Severe restrictions on NGOs and aid, which have left IDP camps vulnerable to disease and short on food, have now been extended into resettlement areas.

“We were told by the area commander not to use vehicles with our organisation’s logo. Without the logo, we could bring in aid for the people.” An aid worker in Vanni said.

In “P” village in Mannar, thousands of people began to resettle almost one year ago. But most villagers have no means to cope with the rainy season. People are living in temporary housing made of tin sheets provided by the International Organization for Migration.

When released from IDP camps, people were given 25,000 rupee (about $224) by UNHCR. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) promised to provide basic food items for six months. A woman from the village said: “Luckily, we were provided with food by WFP until August. It was more than six months.

“Now, we have sowed seeds provided by government for cultivation. [But] until the harvest in about four months’ time, we have no food.”

Some jobs have been available for villagers, such as cleaning public places, which pay about $4.5 per day. But it is far from sustainable work. There are no medical facilities or electricity, other than solar lanterns provided by Caritas for some families with students.

Despite shortfalls, aid and government workers in the region agreed that “P” village is one of the best resettlement cases. While villagers and NGOs complained about the vicious restrictions on aid for the desperate population, government workers nodded of those complaints.

“Some 150 families, who were resettled in and around Periamadu area, were given nothing. But the government hasn’t given permission to NGOs [to help]” said Sanjive (name changed), a 32-year-old field worker.

In early September, Suresh Premanchandra, an MP from the Tamil National Alliance, revealed that 255 families, or 1215 people, were prevented by the commander in charge at Mullaitivu from resettling in their place of origin. No aid has been provided for these people, who are living in a school.

Another Tamil politician, Mano Ganeshan, equated the situation with the one in Palestine. “This is what has been going on in Palestine. Palestinians have lived in refugee camps for generations,” he said. “The government wants to keep Tamils desperate for more years. This is so people will only be concerned with food and shelter, and they won’t think of political or social rights”.

photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

It is not by accident that the most solid structure in “P” village is a military camp. When asked how she felt when she first arrived back in her hometown after being displaced for years and then detained in an IDP camp, 32-year-old Buddima (name changed), whispered:

“Terrified”

After a pause, she continued: “We are not getting used to live under the army control or being surrounded by them like this. This is terrible.”

Government statistics compiled by UNHCR put the number of IDPs released as of August 30 at 258,846. This indicates that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 IDPs are still detained in the camps.

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*photo (right): There are tens of thousands war widow in Sri Lanka’s North and East. Many of their family members have gone missing, while passing military checkpoint. The woman, whose husband has disappeared at the military checkpoint in the North, has kept her reports with human right groups and police, hoping to find out her husband.

** photo (left): Sanjive Rubaganatha (3) has many scars of war over his body. He often draws something, which he said, ‘dead bodies’ or ‘shelling’. After a year and half since the war ended, the Rajapakse regime has not much keen on healing the war scars among Tamil population.

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