03/02/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Government plans "villages" for the 200,000 refugees of Vanni

by Melani Manel Perera
They are being built in the areas of Mannar and Vavunya, and are being equipped with schools, banks, post offices, and health clinics. According to government sources, the refugees will remain there for at least three years. The temporary measures are being taken to allow the army to restore the areas involved in the conflict.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The government of Colombo is building five "welfare villages" equipped with semipermanent structures intended to host the 200,000 refugees of Vanni. These are full-fledged towns in the areas of Vavunya and Mannar, with homes, schools, banks, post offices, and health clinics. Government sources confirm that the villages are intended to host the refugees for the next three years. But humanitarian organizations are expressing many doubts.

Basil Rajapaksa, a presidential adviser and in charge of the resettlement of war refugees, says that the time to be spent in the five villages has not been fixed, and that the return of the refugees to their homes will take place much sooner. "We plan to start in Mannar and Vavuniya by April. Our plan is to complete 80 percent of the resettlement by the end of this year."

The creation of villages is part of the government program called "Urgent Relief Programme for the People of Wanni." They are supposed to serve as temporary settlements while the army completes the work of restoring the areas taken from the control of the Tamil Tigers. Despite the statements from B. Rajapaksa, workers in the camps hosting the Internally Displaced People are expressing serious perplexity about the project, and are afraid that the refugees are intended to remain in the villages much longer than Rajapaksa thinks, and even longer than the three years stated by other government sources.

Sarath Fernando, a human rights activist and head of the Movement of National Land & Agriculture Research (MONLAR), tells AsiaNews: "The experience of the settlement of refugees, victims of past disasters, demonstrates that one must be very cautious toward the government's programs to resolve the problem of war refugees." Fernando recalls the case of the victims of the tsunami, who were promised "that they could return to their homes in six months. The Arugambai Bridge, which was only a tourist attraction, was rebuilt with a great investment of capital, and was given the greatest priority," while the refugees' homes were put second, and some of them are still living in temporary housing.

Fernando complains that the government intends to resolve the problem of refugees without involving them. For the head of MONLAR, "it is necessary to distinguish between the Tamil Tiger militants and the ordinary civilians who have suffered from the war." In order to initiate a program of reconstruction and rehabilitation that would address the problems of the population in the best way possible, "it is best to consult the victims and their point of view." In this case as well, Fernando cites the case of the tsunami, in which the members of the Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation were mostly chosen from the world of business and tourism. "Experience teaches us that the victims of previous disasters were not given sufficient attention, and long remained victims. It is important that people who have suffered for so long should not have to spend even more time in this condition."

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