Kamaladevi* was on pins and needles as the days grew closer to the final week of September so she could finally settle in the comfort of her very own home with her family. Having lived in a temporary shelter in the Ananda Coomaraswamy village in Menik Farm close to four years gripped with feelings of uncertainty, returning to her ancestral home, seemed exciting although it was razed to mere bullet-riddled compound walls. It was with a great sense of anticipation that she started packing the few scraps of belongings into a broken suitcase and few other cardboard boxes with the help of her two kids.
Some 1,184 persons including Kamaladevi were members of the last batch of IDPs to leave the Menik Farm camp - the largest internment facility in Sri Lanka, as well as the world that stretched over some 700 hectares, housing over 80% of Sri Lanka’s displaced population. However, out of that final batch, Kamaladevi and some 346 others whose original lands were located in Keppapilavu, Mullaithivu was also the only group that was not resettled in their original lands upon leaving Menik Farm camp September 25.
" It seems the last batch of IDPs to be relocated was not only deprived of the chance to return to their lands of origin but is also the most deprived with concern to receiving relief measures as well "
Change of plans
This group of 346 IDPs who were prepared to reach their original lands in Keppapilavu met with an unpleasant surprise when they were transported to the Vetrappali Maha Vidyalaya upon leaving Menik Farm, located only a few miles away from their village. “I felt something was wrong when we were not transported to our village that day. There were whispers amongst our group that we were not being taken to our original lands as there was a military facility constructed in our village. The stop at the school that day made me realize we were never going home,” she says. However, most families had still been having hopes of returning to Keppapilavu at least the following day.
Kamaladevi’s fears had been realized the next morning when they were instructed to gather their belongings once more, to reach their destination. “Instead of reaching home, we arrived to this model village which we were told would be our new home. Only the barb wire that separated the land plots assigned to each family were available. We immediately set to work so that we would have a shelter to lie by the evening,” she says as she stares down and digs the sandy soil with her toes.
“We were provided with 12 roofing sheets and Rs. 5000 when we left Menik Farm. We had grand plans to clean and clear whatever that was left of our houses and gradually repair them. But upon reaching this new village, we had to start from scratch and prepare the shacks with whatever material available,” she says pointing at the labyrinth of huts that lay ahead of her, thatched with roofing sheets - some of their walls made of mud, the others covered with tent and roofing sheets.
Although at present she is employed as a volunteer health worker, like the majority of families from Keppapilavu, Kamaladevi had also planned to cultivate some crops upon resettling to earn some extra cash to support her family, as she is the sole breadwinner. “After the conflict, my husband went into depression and he is currently receiving psychological treatment; he is no longer in a position to work. I earn only Rs. 6000 per month and that is hardly sufficient to feed my two children three meals a day. Their schooling also incurs quite a significant amount due to transportation charges, cost of stationary and tuition fees. It is quite tough to manage a family of four with just Rs. 3000/4000 income per month. . .”
Her neighbours who by now, are gathered around her, join the conversation. Parameshwari*, one of the neighbours says she is angry and frustrated about being deprived of the chance to return to their original lands. “We were people who lived of agriculture. How are we to restart our lives when we are robbed of the chance to continue our livelihoods? This land we are settled in at the moment is not rich and cannot bear good crops,” she says as she takes a fistful of soil and releases the grains of sand.
Upon speaking to the families of the Keppapilavu model village in Seeniyamottai, it was evident that not only had they been deprived of their chance to return home but they were also disadvantaged from being granted some of the relief measures provided by the government to the IDPs who were resettled including the Rs. 25,000 housing aid, equipment to construct proper sanitation facilities for each home, livelihood assistance and the dry ration supply for six months as they had been assured of a supply only for three months.
Tears of a father
“I don’t know whether we would ever get the chance to return home now. But if we are to live here, I plead with the government to help us set up proper sanitation facilities at least so that the children don’t fall sick,” Sivalingam*, a widower and a father of three says. A fisherman prior to the conflict, at present, he spends his days thinking of ways to earn a sufficient income to provide for his children.
He points at the distance and says, “The toilets are constructed only in the corners of the village and families that reside in the middle of the village are reluctant to walk across to the toilets. As a result of the poor sanitation habits, a lot of children have been falling sick. I am glad at least the water supply is properly in place,”
His three children are still very young, the eldest only 12-years-old. They are left under the care of his neighbours when he sets off in search of work every morning, just so he can feed his children at least once a day.
“I can bear the pangs of hunger; they are nothing new to me. But I can’t bear to hear my children crying in hunger. I am not lucky enough to find work every day. But on days I am able to find work, I can earn about Rs. 1000 but that is hardly sufficient because by then, I am in debt to half the families in the village,” he confesses, his eyes growing watery with tears. Managing the daily meals has been comparatively easy these few weeks, he says, as they are still running on the dry rations provided by the government for three months. “I don’t know how to put food on the table once the rations run out,” he says heaving a sigh.
He draws one of his children closer to him and caresses the little head full of thick brown hair. His coarse, sun-blackened face softens for a moment as he looks at his child. “We are not asking for riches or treasures – only to return what is ours and some assistance to restart our livelihoods. We don’t want to be beggars and depend on the government. We wish to live independently and with dignity and we are asking the authorities only to give us a helping hand to achieve that goal,” this determined father says, as he wipes the tears off his cheek.
According to a UN report, over 1,200 acres of residential and agrarian lands belonging to those from the Keppapilavu area are being deprived to these families as a result of them being relocated to the Seeniyamottai area. The majority of them still have a strong desire to move back to their ancestral homes in Seeniyamottai and they have protested and petitioned on several accounts against the decision to resettle them in an area, which is not their village of origin. Others have given up hope and are ready to permanently reside in the model village in Seeniyamottai, as long as they are legally assured of their rights to the alternative land plots provided.
Nevertheless, though it has been close to three months since these families were relocated to Seeniyamottai, several fundamental issues still persist with regard to livelihoods, property and the very basics such as sanitation facilities. It seems both unjust and unrealistic to expect these people who have undergone such trauma and suffering and have had their homes razed to the grounds, to rebuild their lives simply by relocating them without a helping hand to assist them through the tough times that lie ahead.
" “I don’t know whether we would ever get the chance to return home now. But if we are to live here, I plead the government to help us set up proper sanitation facilities at least so that the children don’t fall sick,” Sivalingam*, a widower and a father of three days says. A fisherman prior to the conflict, at present, spends his days thinking of ways to earn a sufficient income to provide for his children "
“It’s a gradual process” - Resettlement authority
Resettlement Authority Chairman Buddhi Passaperuma speaking to Daily Mirror acknowledged they have learnt of several flaws in the relocation of IDPs in the Keppapilavu model village in Seeniyamottai and added they are in the process of gradually providing the relief measures deprived of the people.
“It is not an easy or simple process and we have not ignored or discriminated these families in any way and we have no intention to do so. We admit there have been certain flaws but we have taken measures to correct the mistakes in the process and ensure the people are properly provided for,” he added.
Speaking on the issue on the possibility of these families being relocated in their village of origin, he said, “Due to certain security measures, the lands of the village of Keppapilavu have not been released yet. But our ultimate aim is to resettle these families in their lands of origin so we will take every measure possible to ensure that happens. However, once again, it would be a gradual process and will not take place overnight.”
Facilities being provided gradually – military official on site
A military official who was on site of the Keppapilavu model village in Seeniyamottai said they are in the gradual process on constructing permanent housing for the relocated families but added assistance is being provided on priority basis. Each housing unit comprises of two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen as well as a toilet. “We have provided priority to constructing houses for the elderly and disabled and it is only thereafter we would be providing for the rest of the families. We have plans to increase sanitation facilities for the village and we are also on the process of constructing a kovil and a school for the village as well,” the official added.
*names changed to protect identity
Pix by Pradeep Pathirana
Comments - 2
Austin Fernando Monday, 17 December 2012 06:01 PM
Good writing. Keep it up.
gehan. s perera Monday, 17 December 2012 12:14 PM
This is ridiculous as it was reported months ago that all refugee camps have been closed and all dissplaced persons have been sent to their original homes.It appears that some persons have to suffer so much with their little children living in temporary shacks at the height of the rainy season.Does anybody care about these citizen§of our country who have to suffer so much so many years after the war.
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