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War refugees struggle to rebuild in Sri Lanka

[The Washington Post, Tuesday, 19 January 2010 15:17 No Comment]

The vast rice fields of Kilinochchi are overgrown with shrubs. The herds of cattle and goats have disappeared. The tractors and motorcycles are gone. Buildings and homes have been bombed into heaps of concrete rubble.

War refugees have found little left of their old lives as they trickle back to their villages in the former Tamil Tiger stronghold eight months after Sri Lankan forces crushed the rebel group.

"We are happy to be back but confused about what to do next," Subramanium Muthurasu, 66, said. "We have to start farming, but we don’t have the resources. We stand empty-handed."

Muthurasu, who once grew rice and tended cattle in the village of Karaichchi, is desperate to find a way to make money now that he has the extra responsibility of taking care of his daughter, widowed by the war, and her five children.

The government says the returnees are getting food rations and money to help them out, but conceded it was not enough.

"You should understand that this is a poor country, you will not be able to give everything at one go," said Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, the military official in charge of the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians displaced by the fighting.

Journalists from The Associated Press were granted rare permission to visit the former battlefield just weeks before a hard-fought presidential election pitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa against former army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Both men, considered war heroes by the Sinhalese majority, are heavily courting the Tamil vote with promises of aid to the war-wracked minority as it tries to rebuild from the conflict.

For more than a quarter-century, this Indian Ocean island nation was consumed by the conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the ethnic Tamil separatists who were fighting for an independent state in the jungles of the north.

The rebels controlled a vast swath of the area, set up a de facto state with police, courts and banks, and used Kilinochchi as their administrative capital.

The economy of the rebel-held region had long been stifled by the war, with a government blockade keeping out everything from gasoline to cement. But agriculture thrived and some entrepreneurs managed to run shops and small industries producing soap and cologne.

All that disappeared last January when government forces overran the area, sending the insurgents and the residents fleeing deeper into rebel territory. Some civilians managed to grab their valuables and drive off with their motorbikes, but were eventually forced to abandon everything as the offensive swept over them. Those with money in rebel banks saw their savings instantly disappear.

According to U.N. documents, more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the fighting. About 300,000 Tamils were forced into government detention camps, awaiting government permission to return to their homes.

Kilinochchi today looks like a garrison town with dozens of military camps, large and small, every few hundred yards (meters0 and soldiers patrolling the streets. Rebel monuments have been replaced by army war memorials.

No building is without damage and the streets are nearly empty, because only 8,000 of the district’s estimated 120,000 pre-war residents have returned.

Gunaratne said about 70 percent of people in camps have gone home or live with relatives and friends. Some others live in transit camps, cleaning up their land before moving back.

The returnees receive a resettlement package of $250 from the United Nations refugee agency, six months of food rations, 12 tin roof sheets and a tent.

In the village of Karaichchi, soldiers have also built mud and thatch huts as temporary shelters to protect returning families from the rain and helped clean up land and wells.

Returnees say the resettlement package is not enough for them to make the needed investments in cleaning up and replanting their farms or restarting businesses.

"Is this enough to start our lives?’" asked Ramiah Rajamani as he used the tin sheets to cover his hut in Puliyankulam village south of Kilinochchi.

Rajamani said he saved $150 of the $250 grant to resume farming. He will need twice that amount to cultivate his two-acre farm, he said.

"The government doesn’t have a roadmap as far as resettlement is concerned," said Suresh Premachandran, an ethnic Tamil lawmaker. He accused the government of taking over private property for military camps and continuing to block international aid groups from helping the people.

Gunaratne said the government was not willing to compromise on security so soon after defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

"We have to prevent the remnants of the LTTE or germs of terrorism filtering back to the villages," he said.

But he said the government was also trying to help the residents, lending them its own tractors to plow the fields, and it plans to distribute rice seed as well.

UNHCR spokeswoman Sulakshani Perera said the U.N. was distributing food rations and hygiene kits in resettled villages.

"The need to develop livelihoods remains a key issue that must be tackled in order to ensure that the returns are durable," she said.

Some of the returning refugees are working to make the most of their situation.

Ramasamy Kanthasamy, a 50-year-old father of three, once ran a restaurant along the roadside and owned more than 600 goats, cows and sheep, which he was forced to abandon. Their loss cost him around $40,000, an unimaginable fortune here, he said.

He now sells cookies, tea and cigarettes he bought with his government grant out of a hut he built out of his tin and plastic sheets on the site of his former restaurant.

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