The struggle to go home in post war Sri Lanka: Manthuvil in the Mullativu district
Last Friday, 14th September, I visited friends from Manthuvil and Puthukudiruppu, both in the Mullativu district who are trying to resettle in their own houses.
One friend has a lovely house in four acres of land in Manthuvil, along the Puthukudiruppu – Mullativu road. He and I had both heard from separate sources that the area had been demined a long time ago. In fact, there are no signs warning of mines or explosives near his house, as I had seen in many areas in the North. However, the Army continues to deny my friend and his family permission to return to his home. He is desperate and yearns to return after being forced to stay away for many years. My friend says that the Army has persistently refused him and others in the area permission to return, without providing any official reasons for the restriction.
In August, as most people around the area began to resettle, including on the opposite side of the Puthukudiruppu – Mullativu road to his house, my friend decided to erect a temporary shed opposite his house, with the permission of the land owner, in order to watch over his land and what remains of his house. He claims that most of what remained, after the end of the war including windows, doors, ceiling sheets, roof tiles and even the toilet commode, has been robbed and fears that whatever is remaining will also be stolen in his absence. My friend is unsure whether the missing roof tiles had been stolen or damaged during the fighting. He suspects they were stolen along with other fixtures in his house, since not even broken tile pieces remain. Some of these had been there just a month ago.
My friend had 300 coconut trees on his land before his displacement. Some had been damaged in shelling, but my friend says that the coconuts from the remaining trees had also been stolen in the intervening years. He suspects that the Army stole most of the produce or permitted others to steal from his land, as the Army remains in full control of the area and is quick to chase him – the owner – whenever he enters his property. If the reason my friend is prevented by the Army from entering his land is indeed because of mines or explosives, these seem to grant a special kind of immunity to robbers!
My friend has been lucky to some extent because a relative allowed him and his family to live in a house in Killinochchi until they could return to their own house. However most people from Manthuvil are not so lucky, and had no choice but to remain in Menik Farm camp for more than three years till they are allowed to return home. Like my friend, they long to go home – but earlier this week, the Army told them that they will only be allowed to go back home in around December. Given the many broken promises and delays, no one has any confidence in any such commitment or promises by Government officials, politicians or the Military.
As we were talking just outside my friend’s house, a bus passed on the Puthukudiruppu – Mullativu road. We could hear the sound of baila music inside the bus. Clearly they were in a very happy mood. My friend was clearly not happy, and said that “Hundreds of these buses pass by everyday with Sinhalese tourists from all over the country. They go to see the war monument and exhibits, but they never stop and talk to us to find out how we are doing and they seem utterly indifferent and seem not to care about our sufferings and the injustices we are subjected to”.
In the last month or so, several people in nearby villages such as Mullivaikal, Valaignarmadam, Anandapuram had been finally allowed to resettle in their villages after more than three years. All people that we met complained of lack of any assistance from the Government. But they were happy to be back in their own land despite the danger or unexploded landmines, lack of basic services and the terrible memories of loved ones being killed, injured and running over the dead and dying during the final months of the war. Many spoke of the “box” in Anandapuram, where many LTTE cadres and leaders had been killed after being encircled from different sides by the Sri Lankan Army during the final phase of the war in 2009.
In several places, people showed me bombs and unexploded explosive devices. In the absence of any government assistance to clear shrub jungles, people set fire to clear the jungles despite the expressed fear of explosions being set off. A common complaint among returnees was that doors, windows and ceiling sheets had been stolen from their houses. Sisters in the Holy Family Convent in Puthukudiruppu had come to live in a makeshift and basic shelter next to the damaged Convent a few weeks ago. However they found that all the doors and windows in the Convent, that had been there just a few weeks ago, had been stolen by the time they returned.
Later on in the evening, I stopped by the Our Lady of Velankanni church, also located on Puthukudiruppu – Mullativu road, located just a few meters towards Mullativu after the extravagantly built war monument and war museum in Manthuvil. Since 8th September, the tiny Church dedicated to Mother Mary has provided shelter to 6 families, consisting of 24 people, including 14 children. Despite being Hindus, they were extremely respectful of the church they had sought shelter in and even lit candles as Catholics usually do.
These people had collectively owned 10 acres of land just next to the huge war monument in Manthuvil. They like many others had waited for more than three years to go home, after the end of the war. But when they were finally brought for resettlement along with other people in the area on 8th September, they were in for a shock, as they found their land occupied by the Army. From what we found out, the Army had acted arbitrarily and not followed existing legal procedures to acquire the land, even though these families had deeds and permits showing land title.
According to the families, the Army had no qualms in telling them to find an alternate place to stay as they ( the Army) needed more time to vacate the land they had been occupying for over 40 months rent free!. The owners state that the land was full of coconut trees and they had looked forward to the income and to be self sufficient after being displaced and dependent on NGOs, UN agencies and other well-wishers for several years. The owners had insisted that they wanted their land back as they had nowhere else to go and they had been suffering for more than three years as displaced persons. Finally, the Army had agreed to leave in two days. But this deadline is long passed and the Army continues to occupy this private land.
I remembered that the people of Mullikulam, in the Mannar district were also chased away by Army with assurances that they could return in 2-3 days time, but after more than five years, these people are still waiting to go home. I didn’t have the heart to share that with these people. Perhaps they know better than I of promises made by an occupying force. The families have complained to the Government officials and they (the owners) even agreed to give the Army part of their land. However, they later came to know that the Army was demanding a larger extent of land than they had agreed to give. When it was pointed out that there was a lot of state land available nearby, the Army had told them that as these were lowland, it was not suitable for an Army camp and that the people could settle there instead. The people complained that “They (the Army) want to grab our land and send us to lowland that they say is not even good for them”.
As we were talking we saw several busloads of what appeared to be Sinhalese tourists visiting the war monument and the war museum, pass by. In the face of obvious suffering and injustice, the words of my friend from earlier that day, rang true. The tourists do not seem to see these people or don’t seem to care or maybe even don’t want to know the bitter truths of what the Army is doing to people in the North.
I also visited Rajini and other friends who had returned to their lands in August 2012 and about whom I had written earlier. I was happy to see that the jungle around their houses had been cleared. I was able to go to Rajini’s house through a footpath, unlike the shrub jungle I had to go through last month. My friends spoke of the effort it took to clear the jungle and put up their temporary houses. The majority are women, the men having been killed, disappeared or held in Government detention centers.
They continue to face challenges in earning a steady livelihood. Rajini was a seamstress before displacement, but had lost the sewing machine during the war as they scrambled to save their lives. Some had got assistance to buy bicycles, solar powered panels etc. from well wishers, friends, NGOs etc. But according to people I met, there has been absolutely no assistance from the Government towards their resettlement. Many women headed families living alone amidst shrub jungles live in fear at night, as there is no electricity and little protection. Many have got themselves mobile phones which is their only link to the outside world, but they face problems to recharge their phone batteries and often have to travel far to reach a point where they can recharge the battery.
I was happy to find that people who had sought shelter in the St. Joseph’s Church Puthukudiruppu and the Puthukudiruppu Roman Catholic School until they cleared the jungles and erected temporary shelter had also left these common buildings. The church is heavily damaged, but services had started. The school which had also been heavily damaged had started classes on 3rd September. According to one teacher, it had around 430 students at the beginning of 2009, but now has only around 200. Classes are conducted up to grade 11 with just 10 teachers, with the primary school having only two teachers. Before, there had been 24 teachers. Computers had been looted and furniture and library has also been looted and damaged. The school building is not fully repaired and the whole of the upstair is not being used as the structure is unsafe. More than two classes are held simultaneously in some classrooms and some of the classes are held under trees in the garden.
The official Government version is that resettlement in the Mullativu district is in full swing and that it’s almost completed. But some as described above are re-displaced instead of being resettled due to Army occupation of their land. Others who had been told they can go back in July 2012 are still waiting to go home and they have not been told why they are not allowed to go back and when exactly they can go back. Those who had braved extreme odds and decided to resettle in their own villages struggle to cope with un-cleared shrub jungles, unexploded explosives, lack of livelihood opportunities, decent housing and other forms of assistance, with even the basic assistance coming from UN agencies, NGOs and well-wishers.