09/15/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Tamil refugees going home to an open prison

by Melani Manel Perera
In villages in Mannar district, the government’s ‘Northern Reawakening’ programme has not brought promised changes. Homes are still broken; services are non-existent, and freedom of movement still limited by heavy military presence.
Mannar (AsiaNews) – The government had promised them homes, land to farm and a life back to normal after years of war, but people who fled villages in northern Sri Lanka’s Mannar district found something quite different when they got home after the fleeing the area in 2007 amid heavy fighting between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels. Their homes are broken, fields cannot be farmed, and the soldiers are everywhere. There are no basic services and the situation is such that in villages like Kokkupadayan primary school children, all 80 of them, have no chairs or desks to study with.

After successfully ending the 30-year old war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government launched a ‘Northern Reawakening’ programme (Uthuru Wasanthaya). It promised a new life for the residents of one the most war-torn area in the country.

Back on 30 April 2009, the first 122 families went home, joined on 9 June by many more, all eager to repopulate the villages of Aripputhurai, Silawaturai, Bandaraweli, Pokkarni and many other small hamlets in the district of Mannar.

“We are happy to be home even if our houses are broken. But we have no reason to rejoice even if they say we are free,” a fisherman in Aripputhurai told AsiaNews.

“We were told that we would get projects that would support us, projects for reconstruction and development, but they only fixed bridges and roads,’ a villager said.

Instead, the authorities are monitoring residents and fishermen are allowed to work only between 6 am and 6 pm.

“The 4,000 acres we used to farm before we fled are now under military control,” a farmer said.

“We are living in an open prison,” said Fr Seemanpillai Jayabalan, parish priest in Aripputhurai. “People have no hope for development. They have lost their property and many homes are a total write-off.” NGOs are not allowed in the area and “all aid must go through the government’s Rehabilitation Task Force,” the clergyman said.

Checkpoints are everywhere, so that human movement is under tight control. “The military say that the LTTE does not constitute any danger anymore,” Father Jayabalan; yet “people cannot freely go the jungle to fetch the wood they need to repair their homes. There is a ban on fires and there are still mines in some areas.”

Anyone who needs help to repair a roof or rebuild a wall in his home can only get government handouts. Wood, roof-tiles, plastic sheets and even branches from coconut trees can be obtained only through the Rehabilitation Task Force; no one has the right to get anything any other way.

According to local sources, that security forces seized 50 acres belonging to the Church of Holy Mary in Mullikulam in order to build a naval base, another 100 are going to be taken over by the Musali Division to build a police station.

Father Jayabalan is troubled by what is happening. “What is purpose of all this, if the authorities do not take care of the people? We are powerless and increasingly concerned about what our brothers and sisters are going through in the camps,” he said.

“The heavy rains of November and December will come soon. We have lived in refugee camps and know that no one can survive in places like that.”

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