Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Long Way Home

by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), August 17, 2007

Over 100,000 displaced people have already been resettled in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts in recent months, according to government statistics. Ponnaraja and his family unfortunately have not. They are currently residing in a welfare centre just north of the district capital and are among thousands of other IDPs who, at least for the time being, cannot return to their original homes and currently have nowhere else to go.

TRINCOMALEE - Joseph Ponnaraja, aged 22 and a father of three, does not have the faintest idea where he and his family, who have been displaced for just over a year, will finally end up living.

They fled their home in the eastern Sri Lankan coastal town of Muttur in Trincomalee District on 6 August 2006, when fighting broke out between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

First they travelled by foot to Valechchennei town in Batticaloa District over 90km south. They remained at a welfare centre there until March 2007. When the government launched a massive resettlement programme that month in areas in southern Trincomalee formerly controlled by the LTTE, Joseph Ponnaraja and his family returned to Trincomalee District, hoping soon to move back to their original home in Muttur town.

Over 100,000 displaced people have already been resettled in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts in recent months, according to government statistics. Ponnaraja and his family unfortunately have not. They are currently residing in a welfare centre just north of the district capital and are among thousands of other IDPs who, at least for the time being, cannot return to their original homes and currently have nowhere else to go.

Fishermen in Mutur 2002

Most have been unable to return because the areas remain unsafe as de-mining activity has yet to be completed, or because their homes are in a large area of Muttur and Sampur Divisions that the government officially designated on 30 May as a no-go High Security Zone (HSZ). The new HSZ is 90sqkm with at least part of it slated to be a special economic zone. Outsiders are barred from the HSZ unless they have written permission from government authorities.

The remaining internally displaced persons (IDPs) are scattered in camps throughout Trincomalee District, including four sites in Kiliveddy town which currently shelter some 3,700 people, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and are not far from the HSZ, and areas still contaminated with dangerous unexploded ordnance.

High security zone

Some civic organisations are concerned about the numbers of people who will not be able to return to their former homes in the HSZ. The University Teachers for Human Rights - Jaffna (UTHR), a grouping of academics that files regular reports on the north and east, put the number at as many as 15,000 civilians in a report dated 3 August 2007.

"I can't go back home because of security concerns and no one has taken us there," Ponnaraja told IRIN, "We don't know if we can go and look, I don't think it's possible."

The situation for the remaining thousands of IDPs varies. Ponnaraja and his family live with 30 other families in a welfare site of tin-roofed shelters with adequate water and sanitation facilities. It seems a far better situation than for the 260 people who are camped in the Hindu Cultural Hall in Trincomalee town. Here, IRIN found, families demarcated their small living spaces in the large, open hall using piles of whatever personal belongings they still possess.

Adequate conditions at welfare centres

At all the IDP welfare centres, food, drinking water and electricity are provided - either by the government, UN agencies or non-governmental organisations - according to the Trincomalee branch of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), though concern has been expressed about overcrowded conditions at the Kiliveddy sites, UNHCR said. "The Kiliveddy sites are overcrowded and there have been many attempts to ease the pressure," Sulakshani Perera, external relations assistant at the UNHCR office in Colombo, told IRIN. The Kiliveddy camps were originally built as transit centres, not for long-term residence.

The displaced have not yet been told where they can resettle. "UNHCR has not been officially informed of any alternate locations found for those who are unable to return," Sulakshani Perera, External Relations Assistant at UNHCR Colombo said. However, local social workers said land had been earmarked in the Ralkuli area south of the HSZ for some resettlement. "We heard the land was identified and cleared, but nothing official yet," Mohamed Azhar of the Rural Economic and Community Development Organisation told IRIN.

Stress

Even if alternate locations are found, most of the displaced are already expressing reservations about moving. "I want to go back home, where I had a job, we had schools and I was familiar with things," Devarasa Rajalakshimi, an IDP from Muttur told IRIN. "What can I do in an unknown place, I don't know anyone there."

For many IDPs, like Ponnaraja and his family, they prefer to be near the sea or their farms. "I was a fisherman and I have to be close to the sea to do that," Ponnaraja told IRIN.

The stress of the long-term displacement is beginning to tell on some of the IDPs, according to officials of the local CHA branch, with alcohol abuse high in some camps and depression fuelled by a longing for home and the lack of a livelihood.

Fear

Those living in the IDP sites in Trincomalee District said they were nervous about venturing out in search of jobs. Their identification papers show they are from areas that were under LTTE control less than a year ago, and they fear they will be considered suspect by some government authorities.

Those remaining in the welfare camps because they cannot return to their homes are unlikely to move out any time soon. At Ponnaraja's camp, classes commenced for school kids in early August, and at the Hindu Cultural Centre camp, new construction was underway to accommodate the IDPs in separate quarters.