The Wasteland that is Wanni - The Sunday Leader


The wasteland that is Wanni

By Frederica Jansz

WHILE the LTTE's decision to suspend negotiations with the government is certainly debatable, what is not arguable is the fact that a year and three months after the ceasefire 

agreement was signed, the situation inside the Wanni remains desperate.

The pros and cons of the politics involved in the LTTE's decision to abscond from further talks is an issue marginalised by the excessive levels of poverty and lack of development inside the 1237.11 square kilometres of the Wanni. 

While the present peace process has earned rich dividends for the south by way of foreign investment and economic development, for people in the Wanni, reaping any rewards from the peace process is still a distant illusion. Other than the war itself having ceased, there is little or no dividends for civilians living in the Wanni as they battle against overpowering odds to make ends meet.

Shortage of resources

Thousands of hectares of fertile farmland is yet fenced off as a result of hidden mines and explosives making it impossible for this once agriculturally rich land to be fully productive.

The entire civil administration of the Kilinochchi District is at a low key due to a massive shortage of resources, such as personnel, office accommodation and inadequate transport facilities. Most government offices in the Wanni area function out of either semi permanent or temporary buildings while some official's swelter in the scorching heat as they valiantly attempt to administer civil work in bullet riddled buildings devastated by heavy artillery.  

The acute shortage of staff and support services is self-evident.  For instance, the Poonakary Divisional Secretary office has only four clerks. The Pachchilaipalli Divisional Secretariat is working with only nine clerks. As a result, they are unable to carry out routine work for the Triple 'R' project which was mooted by this government to carry out rehabilitation work and provide humanitarian assistance for civilians in the Wanni.

According to a situation report issued by the government agent and district secretary, there are no transport facilities to even deliver drugs to institutions. There is a shortage of staff in all health categories while building facilities are not available to run the district hospital - Kilinochchi and the hospitals at Pachchilaipalli and Poonakary. 

The main Kilinochchi town does not even have a hospital. The LTTE's Political Wing Leader, S. P. Tamilchelvan said only the foundation stone for one has been laid, but nothing has happened beyond that. There is apparently a dispute about the layout plans and as such, an indefinite delay in constructing this hospital.

The Kilinochchi District Hospital was completely destroyed during the war and as a result functions 15 miles away at Akkarayankulam, which is a small hamlet west of Kilinochchi.

The offices of the Deputy Provincial Director, Health Services, Kilinochchi also functions out of temporary shelters consisting of sheds constructed from aluminium sheets.

The MOH office of Kilinochchi is temporarily functioning at Akkarayankulam while the MOH office at Poonakary is also functioning temporarily at Jeyapuram. Some 30 primary health centers are functioning out of private buildings due to government health sector buildings having been almost completely destroyed and no renovation work being initiated since the ceasefire agreement.       

The Rehabilitation Ministry had issued five computers for training displaced children. Training was expected to commence in January this year, but is yet to get underway as no furniture items have been received.

Hundreds of students sitting for their Advanced Level examination last week were doing so under cadjan sheds or bomb battered classrooms, still bearing the shell shocked scars of a two decade long war.

Kilinochchi Central College had 30 students sitting for the Advanced Level exam. The Grade 11B and 11A classrooms were bullet-riddled and bombed. Old card boxes that had been opened out served as a window to the outside world. Blackboards are balanced at odd angles against aluminium walls making it impossible to determine how a teacher is even able to write on one. The entire upper floor of the school building has no roof and is completely windowless.

At St. Theresa's Girls College, Kilinochchi, all the school classrooms consist of cadjan sheds. Further down the road, Kilinochchi Hindu College has 720 students, of whom 114 were sitting for their A/L examination. The College Principal, Devaki Sivadasa explained how a lack of funds has made it impossible to reconstruct the bombed buildings out of which her students and some 21 teachers are forced to continue making an attempt at receiving an education.

Unkept promises

At present, 84 schools are functioning in the Wanni. Some of them however are yet to return to their original places from where they were forced to shift to as a result of the war. Many of them continue to function out of bombed out buildings as a result of not being able to function out of a different location.  There are vacancies for 750 teachers for schools in the Wanni.

Driving to Vadamarachchi East, we found a similar situation.  Huge craters in the ground are silent testimony to the area where once a family lived and called it home. Now filled up with green contaminated water, these craters lie silent, evidence of a devastating two decade long war. Very few homes are being rebuilt as the maximum earnings of a government servant in the Wanni is not more than Rs. 1,500.  In fact, according to the Wanni District Secretariat, only 3, 632 families earn this amount and are considered to be above the poverty line.

Government Agent for the Wanni, Thirunavakaran Rasanayagam said this amount is barely enough for a family to survive for a period of 30 days.  He said that out of a total population of 142,372 persons "the situation is desperate" as people have no employment opportunities and as such, are living below the poverty line. He maintained that more than 24,532 families depend on dry rations issued via government food stamps. "Over 32,000 families in the Wanni live below the poverty line," he said.

Rasanayagam pointed out that the only development project being implemented in the Wanni at present is the reconstruction of the A9 road. Costing Rs. 800 million and funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Rasanayagam however asserted that even in this instance, all workers have been brought "from outside" and so the project has not created any employment for civilians residing in the Wanni.

He said various UN agencies "come and go" gathering statistics, "but their promises are yet to materialise." The GA's observation was validated by the LTTE Chief Theoretician Anton Balasingham when he addressed an opening ceremony of the LTTE courts in Kilinochchi last month. There he angrily referred to international non governmental organisations saying "they patronise our roads in luxury vehicles, but all they have done is hand out mats and plastics plates and mugs to our people."

Peace still an illusion

This sentiment, the LTTE's Political Wing Leader, Tamilchelvan also articulated asserting the UN agencies seen in abundance in the Wanni "are all gathering information to write 'Needs Assessment Reports.' This is all they have been doing for the last one year and three months," he said, adding the LTTE has little faith in the sincerity of these organisations.   

The Wanni GA also reiterated that there is absolutely no foreign aid coming into the Wanni other than the A9 highway, which is funded by the ADB.

He said farming in the area is at an all time low as 12,000 hectares of land cannot be cultivated as yet due to it not being cleared of mines and explosives. Out of a total of 30,000 hectares of farmland, Rasanayagam asserted that only 18,000 hectares were cultivated last year. 

Apart from the farming community, he said there are 7,000 families in the Wanni who form the fishing community. He said the fishing community is also struggling to make ends meet.  Rasanayagam pointed out that government buildings are yet to be reconstructed and many government servants are forced to work out of cadjan sheds and bombed out shelters. The department at the district secretariat to store birth certificates and other documentation is a case in point, situated as it is under a cadjan roof with mud walls.

Various rehabilitation organisations are working at odds with each other and even themselves. A senior officer of the North - East Provincial Council who requested anonymity said that at official meetings, many of these representatives do not have a clue on how to coordinate funds and implement development work. 

He said there have been no dividends from this peace process for the civilians in the Wanni. "Nothing has happened over this last year. Everything is merely a pledge and nothing more," he asserted.  He added that monies provided to the North - East Provincial Council are diverted to Batticaloa and Ampara. "Not a cent is allocated for the Wanni region," he said.

The mail service is in a similar mess. With no proper facilities, the postal service in this area functions in an ad hoc manner out of deplorable working conditions. The building which once housed the sub post office at Paranthan is just a shell of its former self.  Instead of the post office, 31 employees function out of an eight by 12 room at the cooperative store in Paranthan. 

The Kilinochchi post office is hardly any better. Windowless and bullet-riddled, this once impressive building stands silently dismal, bearing the scars of a bitter war. This building too is yet to be reconstructed and rehabilitated. 

The former Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) building is in the same devastated condition with only the SLT board balanced precariously askew evidence that an arm of SLT even existed in this area.

Afraid to voice an opinion on the LTTE's decision to suspend peace talks with the government, most civilians we spoke to refrained from comment only saying they are praying for peace.

Rasanayagam said some 16,572 internally displaced families have been re-settled in the Wanni. Another 4,667 families are still to be re-settled.

Visiting the homes of some of the IDPs who have returned to the Wanni we found they have little by which to look forward to a better future. Existing on government food stamps to the value of Rs. 316 per individual, per month, these people are hard pressed to find one solid meal a day.

Barely survive

Maheswari has two children and lives in a shack only four feet tall.  Made out of bullet riddled metal plates, cadjan, aluminium sheets and pieces of polythene, Maheswari ekes out a living for herself and her two children. Her husband tries valiantly to get any type of work from employers who can also hardly afford to make financial payments. The meal Maheswari was getting ready to cook for the day for her family of four consisted of a handful of rice, one brinjal and one coconut.

Pvali Amma who lives nearby is in the same plight. Living with her daughter and son-in-law, the latter of whom is a mason, they too primarily live off government food stamps.  

These families receive nothing from the LTTE, who apparently claim they have no funds to feed these people. 

The shelters of many of these people living in the Wanni can barely be even referred to as houses. They look more like little play houses or even dog kennels with the tallest being a little over five feet in height. 

Whatever the politics involved in excluding the Tigers from the Washington aid conference, one aspect in this entire issue is crystal clear.

The LTTE it appears are fully justified in their complaint to the Prime Minister that a lack of development aid to the war battered Wanni region has left the civilian population bereft of substantive dividends which should have by all accounts by now been derived from the peace process. 

The most optimistic, but solitary factor that bears well for the peace process is the fact that guns are silent and children from both the north and the south are no longer being returned to their parents in body bags. Apart from this aspect, for the people in the Wanni, peace is still an illusion.

As they struggle to survive in a terrain that is both harsh and arid, forgotten and cast asunder, these people do not figure in a peace process that has become bogged down by pledges that hold no real promise of a better future for the people of the Wanni.


The Wages Of Lethargy

When the LTTE announced its unilateral ceasefire in December 2001, the nation’s sigh of relief was audible across the globe. What high hopes we had then! After more than 20 years of war, at last it seemed there was a real chance for peace. Not only were the irascibly belligerent Tigers seemingly yearning for peace, but the newly-elected UNF too, despite a deeply flawed election, had won a clear mandate from the electorate to sue for a peaceful solution to the “north-east problem.” Within days the roadblocks and barriers came down, and Sri Lanka breathed the air of freedom.

The UNF government lost no time in reciprocating the ceasefire, sitting down earnestly to talks and signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the LTTE. In having decided to make war for their rights, the Tigers had sacrificed a whole generation of youth in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, reducing much of the area to rubble: no industries, no employment, no welfare and a massive occupation of civilian property by the armed forces. In seeking to better their lot, the people of the LTTE’s Utopian Eelam had made themselves poor indeed.

In signing the MoU, the government committed itself not only to a specific set of goals, but also to disengagement. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was quick to warn that a final solution would not be quick in coming. It was first necessary to rehabilitate the north-east, resettle refugees in their homes, and make the Tamil people true beneficiaries of the “peace dividend.”

For its part, the LTTE began singing an altogether different tune to that it had chorused for the previous quarter-century; it was ready to reject the idea of a separate sovereign state and embrace a federal solution. Music to many Sinhala ears. And while there have been incidents of violence during the past 16 months, none of these have brought the two sides in the least bit close to actual warfare. As ceasefires go, this ceasefire has been exemplary.

The Tigers’ sudden withdrawal from the talks last week then though anticipated by ringside observers of the peace process came as something of a shock to a complacent nation. It seemed at first that the LTTE’s grievance was its omission from the aid talks in Washington on April 14. The government’s argument is that the LTTE continues to be a proscribed organisation in the United States and there is no way the Bush administration could, short of lifting the proscription, recognise the organisation officially in its capital city. As far as the Americans are concerned, the Tigers are yet to prove their bona fides: they are just another terrorist organisation, much the same as al Qaida. The LTTE’s response to this argument is that the talks could have been held in a country in which their organisation is not banned.

But the Tigers’ real grievance has little to do with pique: to the impartial observer, the LTTE has every right to be bitter and frustrated by the UNF government’s inability to deliver on its promises. Almost half of Anton Balasingham’s four-page letter to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe takes careful aim and hits that nail on the head: the UNF government’s programme of national reconstruction (Regaining Sri Lanka) has completely diluted the acute problems of the north-east in the chronic backwardness of the south.

Balasingham rightly points out that the poverty of the south should not be equated to the poverty of the north-east. The north-east has been a war zone for two decades. Business, industry, construction, roads, schools, hospitals, houses, hotels — you name it, it no longer exists. By any yardstick, the north-east is a disaster area. It is in urgent need of a massive infusion of aid, and it is in urgent need of demilitarisation.

The poverty of the south is quite different. The south has been afflicted by neglect by successive corrupt and uncaring governments, whether UNP or SLFP-led. Balasingham makes this painful and embarrassing point leaving no holds barred, and it is a point we have repeatedly made ever since this government took office.

The suspension of the talks is largely the responsibility of the Prime Minister. As well intentioned as he undoubtedly is, good intentions are insufficient for effective governance of a country — certainly not Sri Lanka. His laissez faire and lackadaisical attitude to political discipline is having tragic consequences. The rehabilitation and restoration of the north-east cannot be entrusted to the likes of Jayalath Jayawardena, whose honesty has been publicly questioned, with a wealth of shady deals being exposed. It requires visionary zeal, dedication and integrity. What the north-east needs is a special commissioner who is at the same time close to the Prime Minister, efficient and completely above board: the names of Bradman Weerakoon, Malik Samarawickrama and Charitha Ratwatte spring to mind.

The government also needs urgently to address the issue of Tamil homes still occupied by the army, displacing thousands of people: 16 months have passed, and the UNF has done little indeed. Wickremesinghe also needs to start seriously addressing the political opposition and behaving as if he has an actual mandate from the people. He needs to read the riot act to the armed forces commanders and get them to play ball. He needs to tell President Kumaratunga just where she gets off. Unless he stands up for his principles — and is seen to do so — it will continue to appear as if he is simply trying to slip one by the people and the opposition.

With the barriers coming down, tourists flooding in and the economy taking off, the south has begun to feel the “peace dividend.” What of the north-east? What peace dividend for them? No investors, no industry and no infrastructure. The frustration the Tigers feel at being unable to deliver something, anything to the people is palpable in Balasingham’s letter. Government’s argument is that unless it panders to the south by diverting most of the aid there, it will not be able to carry the south into supporting a deal with the north-east. The problem is that by doing so at the expense of the north, the government risks alienating not just the LTTE but also the Tamil people.

As the months of peace wear on, the Tigers’ ability to fight diminishes steadily. The regular routs to which they used to put the Sri Lankan army, looting tonnes of arms and ammunition, are a thing of the past. Improved international surveillance of the seas around Sri Lanka and the international safety net Wickremesinghe has put in place has made their arms smuggling operations and return to war more difficult than ever. And all the while, the Sri Lankan armed forces continue to modernise and train. So long as the war was on, governments argued that development money was needed for defence. Now that the peace is here, the defence budget has hardly been cut. Wickremesinghe has succeeded in depriving the Tigers of their principal weapon while at the same time giving little indeed to the people of the north-east, thereby frustrating and alienating the very people he wants so much to bring back to normalcy.

As much as the Sinhalese like to ignore that reality, the fact is that the LTTE does have widespread grassroots support among the Tamil people of the north-east, especially the Tamil Diaspora in Europe and North America. It promised them Eelam, and now it is settling for an obscure and nebulous deal involving federalism. Sixteen months into the process, what has been there for the people of the north-east but an absence of war? Is that all Wickremesinghe has to offer? In that case, it is simply not enough.

The LTTE’s disappointment at Wickremesinghe’s inability to control his corrupt and inefficient ministers, engage in plain talk with the President and stand up publicly for his convictions, is entirely understandable. After all, many in Wickremesinghe’s own party share that frustration. This is a problem that only Wickremesinghe can solve, rising above the ring of bureaucracy with which he has encircled himself, and his obsession with policy and principle rather than action.

The people of Sri Lanka are faced with Hobson’s choice: a warmongering President on the one hand, and a peacenik Prime Minister who cannot find a way to deliver development. As Balasingham’s missive hit the news stands last week, one could almost hear the palms of arms dealers rubbing against each other in glee. But the LTTE has made it clear that they are committed to a negotiated political solution, and to the peace process. There is no talk of war: only pain and frustration at Wickremesinghe’s slowness to deliver meaningful benefits to the north and east.

By suspending the talks, the LTTE has sent a clear message to the Prime Minister; indeed, the same message that many who voted for him in December 2001 would like to send him now — ‘buck up, or you will be forced to pack up.’

And the tragedy of it all is that Wickremesinghe is the only real hope Sri Lanka has at present to deliver peace and prosperity.