Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Forgotten Land

by Rukshan Fernando, The Sunday Leader, April 29, 2007

Almost all displaced we spoke to had fears of going back to damaged houses, having had their property looted and means of livelihood such as fishing gear and harvests destroyed. But everyone told us they want to go back to their own village, but they will only go back when their safety and security are guaranteed.

In several camps we visited, we were told of pressure on the people to go to another transitional camp at Kilivetti, but everyone we spoke to had so far managed to resist this. One person, who had fled Sampur due to shelling by security forces in April 2006, told us that they fear retaliation against civilians, if the LTTE attacked the military. This had happened before.

The road to Batticaloa from Colombo seemed longer and more arduous than it was a few years ago. I felt sorry to see the military personnel standing in the scorching sun on the main road between Welikanda and Batticaloa at regular intervals; but they were also a chilling reminder of the undeclared war going on.

Long lines of vehicles and people at checkpoints manifest the fears of security forces of a sudden attack, while for the Tamil youth, the checkpoints posed the fear of being arrested on suspicion under the emergency regulations.

Eastern Sri Lanka north of Batticaloa More than 100,000 people remain displaced in camps, and several thousands more remain displaced and living in tents, in camps and in front of their destroyed houses and some others with relatives and friends. Some had fled from the western parts of Batticaloa; others had fled from areas like Muttur and Sampur in the Trincomalee District. Even some of the people who had been displaced and returned to Vaharai were still living in tents.

In most camps, tents and some basic temporary shelter have been provided, and water and latrines were available. Rations were also being provided, although irrationally in some cases. Some government servants, such as grama sevakas, as well as NGOs, UN agencies and some enthusiastic and committed military officials seemed active and overstretched in providing assistance to displaced people.

One man from Muttur, who is at the Palameenmadu camp, asked us to intervene with authorities to get "permission" for them to go back, as they didn't have any means of livelihood.

"Our children ask for ice chocks and want to eat fish; but we have no money to buy them," he said. Another displaced man in the Satharakondan 1 camp, also from Muttur, said that they were pawning the only belongings they had, like gold chains, to find money.

Appalling conditions
It was clear that many people in the camps were not getting adequate assistance and were living in conditions that were appalling. A women, also in Sathorakondan 1 camp, said that they had left Muttur nine months ago, and after the first few months, the government had stopped providing assistance. NGOs had continued to provide assistance, but she showed us a "Family Card" indicating that the last time their family received dry rations was on March 23, through the IOM. Most often, they would get rice and vegetables, but no salt and sugar. At another camp called Kirimudi, we heard incidences where people got only 8 kg of rice, when their family card mentioned 11kg.

At the Sathorakondan 1 camp, provisions were also not distributed based on the number of children and the age of the children, and thus, families with a large number of children and with older children, were facing food shortages. In one camp visited by our team, lunch consisting of rice and pumpkin curry was served at 5 p.m with no signs of any dinner.

Tough conditions
A man at the Palameenmadu camp mentioned that the temporary shelters were so hot, it was impossible to be inside during day time. Another woman complained that there were not enough toilets in the camp. We were informed of 45 families being turned away from Arthiviravar Camp in Arayampathy on April 9 due to overcrowding and lack of space in the camp. In some camps such as Thiraimadu one tent houses two-three families.

About 200 families from Vakaneri are located in tents on individual plots in a site at Alankulam, on the main road to Batticaloa from Welikanda. According to reports we received, this land belongs to Muslims, and the local Muslims reportedly had distributed leaflets asking the displaced to leave. The displaced people seem to have the support of the Karuna Group, who had asked them not to move out, and poor people seemed to be caught in between the groups.

Batticaloa Amparai 2004

Vulnerable to recruitment
IDPs living with host families seem to be fully reliant on their friends and relatives for support. Children seemed particularly vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups, even under the eyes of security forces. Shelling had been reported close to schools and hospitals. Schools had been closed since March 23, way before they closed for holidays in Colombo and other parts of the country.

Children at Sathorakondan camp have to walk about three miles to get to the school. We visited the camp the evening before schools were expected to reopen and learnt that children above 15 years have not been provided uniforms. Another man in Panichchankerni, near Vaharai, told us that his children will not be going to school, as the school has been damaged and he thought his children couldn't possibly walk the six miles up and down daily to a school in Vaharai.

One and half days was enough for me to see several young boys with guns. It was evident to me that gun totting children (and men) were all over the town.
Vaharai was a different experience. One of the most improvised areas in the east, its control had shifted from the hands of the LTTE to the Sri Lankan military last month, after heavy fighting. By now, almost all the families who had fled the recent fighting had returned, although there were still people who had not come back, awaiting better living conditions - having been displaced several years ago.

Restrictions removed
There were some signs of hope, as the government had finally provided electricity and increased the number of buses. Priests who had been visiting the area told us that fishing restrictions have also been eased and restrictions on sending fertiliser to the area seemed to have been removed. We also saw a mobile health camp and a bus load of visitors, including Buddhist monks, who had brought some relief items to people who had returned.

Military officials we met seemed keen on providing as much assistance as possible to the people who had returned, and seemed to be coordinating the provision of rations to people. The hospital, damaged in the recent fighting, had also started functioning.

But all was not rosy in Vaharai. On the way to Vaharai, we saw people living in tents and in damaged houses around Panchenkerni. Some of them told us they had not been getting rations in the same manner as people in Vaharai.

Military presense
On Monday, April 16, two people had been killed by unidentified gunmen, in an area swarming with military personnel and access to which was highly restricted by the military. On several occasions, as I attempted to talk to people on the roadside, military personnel moved closer within minutes to listen in.

A colleague who was taking photos of the Kadiraveli school, which had been damaged by shelling was asked by the military why he was taking photos. Double standards with regard to journalists was clearly visible - a journalist from a leading English daily had been refused permission, while another journalist, who I saw travelling on the back of an army pick up, told me that he had always had access to Vaharai.

Ominous sign
In what I thought was an ominous sign for reconciliation, the military had chosen a cemetery where the LTTE had buried their dead cadres, to start a model coconut plantation. This in a context where there was ample empty and fertile land available. Religious leaders in Batticaloa expressed fears that Vaharai would be turned into a "police state" as the military had insisted in issuing special IDs to residents in addition to their national identity cards, and outsiders needed special permission from the military to enter.

On the way to Vaharai, on both sides of the narrow road, we saw more people living in tents, in some cases, close to their shattered houses. In Vaharai, I saw an abandoned office of EHED Batticaloa, while on the bank of the Verugal River, I saw a pre school which had been built by EHED Batticaloa, both of which are occupied by the military now.

Almost all displaced we spoke to had fears of going back to damaged houses, having had their property looted and means of livelihood such as fishing gear and harvests destroyed. But everyone told us they want to go back to their own village, but they will only go back when their safety and security are guaranteed.

Retaliation against civilians
In several camps we visited, we were told of pressure on the people to go to another transitional camp at Kilivetti, but everyone we spoke to had so far managed to resist this. One person, who had fled Sampur due to shelling by security forces in April 2006, told us that they fear retaliation against civilians, if the LTTE attacked the military. This had happened before.

Another woman told us that when her 28 year old nephew and some other young men had gone back to Muttur at the request of security forces, they had been arrested in the middle of the night within a church premises, detained and tortured and had been released on bail due to the efforts of church leaders.

In one camp in Arayampathy, we received a report of the arrest of a young male IDP by the STF on suspicion of him being a LTTE cadre, when he had returned to his village in Kokkadichcholai in order to check on the safety of his belongings.
We heard from a military official that resettlements to Eechilampathu would start in mid May. But there was no mention of 'go and see visits'- that will allow IDPs to visit their places and ascertain whether they feel secure to return and to live in dignity.

Humanitarian workers fear another round of forced resettlements, particularly to Eechilampathu and Vavunathivu.

Sense of helplessness
There was a sense of helplessness as none of the agencies that have mandates to protect human rights seem to be able to do anything more than record the complaints. But people still seemed to be complaining to the Human Rights Commission, OCHA, UNICEF, ICRC, SLMM etc. An officer at the Human Rights Commission office in Batticaloa told us that 16 cases of disappearances had been reported to them in the first 10 days of April alone.

There is no doubt Batticaloa is facing a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions. The government is doing something, but clearly falling way short of its responsibilities. UN agencies, NGOs and church groups seem to be doing their best, but the prevailing atmosphere of hostilities and threats to humanitarian workers doesn't help them.

Most people had no resources to visit an office in town, did not know where and how to lodge a complaint. The Human Rights Commission must come forward more proactively to play a protective role, in particular, to inquire into disappearances and abductions and undertake visits to places of detection, and putting in place mechanisms to ensure that human rights assistance is available and accessible to the persons concerned, including those in camps.

What is also shocking is the apathy being shown by Sri Lankans in the rest of the country to this huge humanitarian and human rights crisis that has unfolded in the east.

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Batticaloa IDP information

Amparai IDP information

Mullaitivu IDP information

Kilinochchi IDP information