Rebuilding lives lost in a war…

Since the end of the war two years ago the government began the resettlement process that has reportedly just ended. However, various claims of people in the North being displaced even after the war seem to be coming to light with the government vehemently denying such reports.

Tamil politicians allege that even though the resettlement process was taking place there was much more to be done by the government; from providing people with proper housing to job opportunities which are few in the area. What is not so surprising are the mixed reports that are being received; some by the government others by those who call the Northern Province their home, of both resettlement and displacement. Reports of resettlement with land owners thanking god for a dream come true as well as reports of more land being occupied by the Army displacing people are many.

The military presence which many say was expected to decrease with the end of the war is another concern. Local politicians accept the government never promised to reduce military presence in the areas but they are hoping that the police will now be upholding the law in the areas.  

While some high security zones have been released by the military allowing the residents to resettle, there are lands that will not be released by the military, leaving behind adamant residents who refuse to accept anything less and an equally adamant government who refuse to release these lands.

Strengthening the security of the North.

Director General of the Media Centre for national Security (MCNS), Lakshman Hulgalle refuted claims that people were being displaced due to the Army taking over land, instead he explains that the government has all but completed the resettlement of the 350,000 who were displaced in the North except for a mere 9,000.  

“The resettlement process has been successful and instead of an increase in military presence there is in fact a decrease, but this does not mean that we can completely remove the military from the North,” he said. Hulugalle explained that due to reasons of national security the military will remain in the former war affected areas.

Hulugalle said that even though most of the top leaders of the LTTE were present during the last phase of the war, they did not want to leave any future threat for the LTTE to re-group. “It is not like the army massacred the LTTE, we know but there may be a more cadres and we cannot allow them to regroup and arm themselves, which is why military presence in the North is essential even after the end of the war,” he stated.

Jaffna Peninsula 

The Additional Government Agent for Jaffna Rubini Varthalingam explained that the land mass in the peninsula that needed to be cleared of land mines was constantly fluctuating. “The land that is released for resettlement is automatically cordoned off and the demining process has begun there,” she said.

Close to 60 per cent of the land has been cleared for mines and the resettlement process is being conducted. Ms. Varthalingam stated that a further 17,673 families have to be resettled in the areas adding that she could not confirm when the process would be completed.  “Some of these lands are high security zones under the military and the people can only be resettled when it is released and we do not know when that will be,” she said. Ms. Varthalingam also said that the authorurities had no proper knowledge of the land under the military until it was released.

Speaking about the vacant property in the town and other surrounding areas she stated that while some had settled back in them others could not afford to do so. “Some of these people have settled down in other areas and some are slowly rebuilding their houses and some others just can’t afford to settle back in their land,” Ms. Varthalingam said. She explained that the authorities were unable to clear these lands as they were private property.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hulugalle denied the existence of high security zones in the Northern Province. “I can say with complete responsibility that there are no more HSZ’s in the North as they were removed under the orders of the Defence Secretary eight months ago,” he said. Mr. Hulugalle explains that citizens are allowed to travel freely anywhere they want to, except for a few restricted areas.

“They are confusing these restricted areas for HSZ’s, we have areas everywhere that people are not allowed to go to like some of the areas surrounding the airports and it is these places that they are mistaking for high security zones,” Mr. Hulugalle explained.

The less fortunate

Some Tamil parties have however alleged that even though people have been resettled in the North many of them are left with nothing. “There are people, especially in the villages who have been resettled who used to get dry rations but they don’t receive that anymore,” said Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) political leader, M. K Sivajilingam.

Sivajilingam further added that many people were in a hopeless situation as they had no occupation as well. “These people come and they talk to us and complain about their situation but nothing can be done,” he said.

Minister for Resettlement, Gunaratne Weerakoon rejected that the government was not taking any action to reduce the hardships of the people. “We have done everything that we can, many of the people have no jobs because they have no qualifications and there is no way to offer them jobs,” he said. 

“Many of these people used to get dry rations and that was provided by the UN, there is only a limited period of time that we too can provide for them,” he said. Minister Weerakoon explained that the Ministry of Resettlement is now conducting a project in collaboration with the Ministry of Construction and Engineering Service to provide low interest loans for people who have resettled and are rebuilding their homes.

“With these facilities a person can take loans up to three or four lakhs and there were some who have taken loans up to eight lakhs,” he said. Minister Weerakoon said that they had scheduled to resettle displaced persons by the end of the year under the directive of the President.   

The Minister claimed that there were many who stayed in a/c rooms in Colombo giving advice or spoke ill of what the government was doing for the people who were recently resettle, but not one person would come forward to do anything about it.

Resettlement or Displacement

With the government’s maintaining that all displaced people have been resettled, few Tamil politicians have charged that there are more being displaced rather than being resettled. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Spokesman MP Suresh Premachnadran says that even though they accept the government is resettling people displaced by the war this out numbers those who are being displaced.

“There are people in the North who have nowhere to go because they still can’t go to their lands after the war,” the Parliamentarian said. He complained that there were an increasing number of families left destitute with many of them pushed out on to the streets with nowhere to go and no job to support them.

MP Premachandran said that there were a 100 or so families in Kilinochchi alone who are out on the streets because of this. “I met an old man there who said that even though he had the deeds to his house he was not allowed in to his own land, he has nowhere to go and no job to support his family,” he said.

Land in Mandathivu, the Parliamentarian said had been taken over by the Navy in order to build a camp leaving villagers with nowhere to go.  “The government says that they have resettled everyone but how can this be when there are more people who are being displaced because of their activities,” MP Premachandran said.

 “The government is giving these people land but they are not sufficient for the people do not have a livelihood,” he said.

Coming home after 21 years

Caught in the cross fire between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE, Thamabiah Sathgunasingham fled avoiding the bombs that were being fired over his house taking nothing but his family and the clothes that they wore.

“We were displaced twice, the first time after we left our homes we returned after a few days, the house was then taken over by the military and we saw that they had taken very good care of it when they gave it back to us,” Mr. Sathgunasingham said. It was after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) took over that they had left the area for good and hadn’t returned till last month. This time when they returned they found nothing of their old home except the walls that were a faint reminder of rooms and the memories it once held.

Recalling the bombs and the deafness and bleeding from the finger tips that followed, Mr. Sathgunasingham explained that they had been displaced and went to Kokuvil where his family and he had been living for the past few years. “Our line of houses was the military’s border, it is from where they fought the LTTE,” he said pointing at the larger bunkers that had been dug inside the houses and the points higher up in the walls that had been made as bunkers as well surrounded by bullet holes.

“I am an engineer by profession and I work at the cement factory close by, they brought us under security a few years back to see our houses and all we saw were forests,” he said sadly. According to Sathgunasingham they had not even been allowed by the military to visit their homes as it was a high security zone.

Siva Subramanian, a farmer who has been allowed to return to his home that he too left 21 years ago and explains that the return of their homes was god given. “I left along with the others who live down these roads, none of us ever thought that we will be able to return to our homes,” he said.

Mr. Subramanian explains that even though rebuilding the house to what it once was would be expensive and they no longer have the funds they used to, it was the feeling of finally coming home when they had lost hope of ever doing so was what brought tears to their eyes and gave them the strength to build from scratch 21 years later.

“The government did say that they will pay some of the expenses but we will have to bear the burden of a large part of it,” he said. Mr. Subramanian said now that they had returned home they were looking forward to getting back to live their lives.  

Mr. Sathgunasingham and Mr. Subramanian along with many of his neighbours return to their former homes everyday clearing up what they could in the hopes of rebuilding the empty walls that now stand alone and come back to the homes they left behind 21 years ago.

Pic by Pradeep Pathirana

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