Colombo (AsiaNews) - A year after the end of the war in the north, the situation is described as "calm and peaceful" by the government and ordinary people. But some visitors who do not fall into these two categories, think differently. One of them is Rukshan Fernando, human rights activist and director of the Justice, Law & Society Trust, Colombo. Returning from a trip to Vanni, he tells AsiaNews that the situation is far from peaceful.
Many of the people encountered in the area have began talking with big smiles, saying they were glad to be back in their lands despite losing all their possessions and adverse conditions. But as they talked, "I was left speechless at seeing that eyes that filled with tears." Many families have returned to their homes incomplete: not only without ownership, but without family, killed, missing or detained.
How was your trip to Vanni given the restrictions on mobility?
On most occasions as we turned from the A9 road or from the Mannar – Medwachiya road to go interior villages, it seemed to arouse suspicion and curiosity in soldiers. Familiar questions of earlier years, such as “where are you going?” “why are you going?” “who are you” were thrown at us. Our response that we are going to visit friends didn’t appear to be a satisfactory answer. In the Vanni, it seems to be considered something abnormal and suspicious to visit friends! My Tamils friends from the North found these questions offensive. “This is our land, our people are living here, these soldiers are from outside, how dare they ask us all these questions and stop us? Why can’t I visit my place? Why can’t I visit my relatives and friends? Why can’t I invite friends (meaning me)?” were the angry and frustrated refrain I was to hear often from my friends. The fact that I was Sinhalese from Colombo seemed to arouse further suspicions and curiosity amongst the soldiers. We asked why they were trying to stop us from visiting, especially as these were areas formally declared as areas cleared of land mines and people were already living there. “We don’t know, we just follow orders” was the inevitable response. Some of the soldiers were apologetic. On several occasions, it was mentioned that we have to get permission from the Ministry of Defense or that we should go to a nearby Brigade Headquarters and get special permission or a pass. My friends and I tried to maintain our composure and sometimes soldiers at the check points tried to help us by contacting their superiors while we waited patiently. Some occasions, soldiers did their best to sooth our frustration by offering us chairs, chatting to us and giving us tips about how bad the roads were! I didn’t think they had anything else to offer. On one occasion, we waited for about 30 minutes near Paranthan on the A9 road and one solider rode on a bicycle to inform the checkpoint that the commander had given a special permission for us to proceed to Uruthirapuram. On another occasion, me and a priest friend from Mannar waited in vain in the hot sun for about an hour at the Mankulam junction check point awaiting permission to visit the recently returned people in Oddusudan. The permission never came and we left the embarrassed and apologetic soldiers at the checkpoint and turned back. Anyways, like we did with the LTTE during the time they were in control of the Vanni and restricting travel to Mullativu and other interior villages, my friends and I did manage to negotiate with those trying to stop us and visit our friends in the interior villages.
Some speak of a “militarisation” of the area, what did you experience in this regards?
Yes, On most roads inside the Vanni, whether on the A9 or interior roads, I felt as if we were traveling within a military camp. Military camps and check posts were along all the roads. In Pooneryn, the main road literally ran through a newly built Army camp. In several other places including the A9 road, army camps occupied the main tarred road and we as civilians were forced to take a roundabout route, on muddy dusty makeshift pathways. In the more bushy and jungle areas, sign boards on the roadside indicated military camps inside the jungles. Soldiers were everywhere with uniforms and with weapons. Some soldiers were in civil but were easily identifiable through the gun on their shoulders, even as they were walking or riding their bicycles. Other soldiers were relaxing, playing cricket and bathing in small streams. The buildings that were in the best conditions were all military and police structures. I could very well empathize with what one elderly gentleman in Mulangavil told me; “it looks as if it’s their (military) land and we are strangers, while the truth is they are occupying our land”. Clearly, the military has less to do on military matters now. I saw and heard in several places that the military is assisting with road construction, distributing water, organizing cultural and sports events etc. I also heard of efforts of some military officials to assist civilians in their basic needs. In view of the massive needs of the population for basic services and infrastructure, and the very weak civil administration and reluctance of the government to allow NGOs access to help those in need, people are compelled to depend on the military for even basic services like water. Also, when I went to Eechalavakai, along the Periyamadu Road from Vidathalthivu, in the Mannar district. There, I met some people who were still living in tents in a common village land as displaced persons. Amongst them was a 10 day old infant. “We were told by the Divisional Secretary that we can go back to our lands. So we came from the camps. But when we came and started to clean up the land, the land we have been living for more than 25 years, the Army came and told us to go away. When we asked why, they told us that they are going to take our land for a Army Camp” one villager told us. Later, we were shown their lands, in nearby Sannar, where notices were pinned to trees saying “This land is reserved for Army”
Are there still security fears in the area?
Of course! The huge military presence, with past experiences of abuses, has caused deep rooted fear amongst many of civilians I spoke to. “We are scared to have young girls and boys walk around in the dark” one mother told us. Catholic sisters who had gone to be with the people had sent additional reinforcements, as they didn’t want sisters to be alone. “I was accused several times by the Army intelligence of being in the LTTE. Another boy was also accused. The Army had also told a villager that I would be taken away. I’m scared and don’t go anywhere alone” was what one man in Kathalampiddy, close to Vidathalthivu told us. “Although only two people had been threatened, the whole village is now scared” another woman from the village told us. They are living the thought of “Will the Army leave soon?” which I had no answer.
Many also fear of sexual abuse committed by military ...
Yes, we come to know about some incidents but some of them could not get confirmed. “In front of our own eyes, and inside our premises, the army was touching a young girl…so what would happen if we are also not there” one Catholic sister asked me when I met her in the Vanni. Amidst the huge military presence, one lady was raped in newly resettled area of Alkataveli, close to Adampan and north of Mannar and one person was killed in Killinochi. The checkpoint and soldiers with their guns had been unable to prevent or bring perpetrators to justice. An incident of sexual abuse by a soldier in Nachikuda was narrated to me. I heard of other incidents of rape, sexual abuse, killings, but could not get confirmation.
What is the situation of freedom of association?
The government is also trying to restrict any peaceful mobilization, collective action of empowerment of people in the Vanni. The Presidential Task Force headed by the President’s brother Basil Rajapakse had granted permission to some NGOs to launch some projects to assist people in need of assistance. One head of an NGO based in Mannar told me “permission has been granted only to build houses and infrastructure and start income generating activities. Permission has been rejected for counselling, capacity building and empowerment activities. So we are restricted in what we can do”.