Sri Lanka’s war-battered Tamils pin hopes on UN visit

Saturday, 3 September 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Amal Jayasinghe

AFP:  Joseph Rasanayagam jumped on his bicycle as soon as he heard rumours the Army would be handing back his ancestral land in Sri Lanka’s battle-scarred north to mark a visit by the United Nations chief.

But when the 59-year-old fisherman arrived at a major military compound in Jaffna, soldiers turned him away – dashing his hopes of finally returning home.

“I can see my land over the (military) fence but I can’t access it until it’s released,” Rasanayagam said.

“For more than 26 years I lived in seven IDP (internally displaced people) camps,” said Rasanayagam, who recently decided to move his wife and four children into a relative’s house, where they are crammed into a single room.

Sri Lanka’s Army has occupied thousands of hectares in the Jaffna peninsula – the heartland of the country’s Tamil minority – and elsewhere in the north since the end in 2009 of a decades-long conflict with Tamil separatist rebels. 

Last year it began returning plots to their original owners. 

But progress has been agonisingly slow for many, especially for the thousands still living in miserable displacement camps. The camps flood during the monsoon rains and their tin roofs are unbearably hot in summer. 

Many are banking on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help push the process along, with his visit to the island this week expected to focus on resettlement issues still outstanding since the end of the war.

“We want to give a petition to him to intervene and get our land back,” Rasanayagam said of Ban, who is due late Wednesday in the capital. “There are about 100 people from my village who are going to sign this.”

The UN Secretary-General will meet President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in January last year on a promise to promote reconciliation with the ethnic Tamil minority. 

Jaffna locals have been told Ban will also visit a village on their peninsula, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo, that was recently handed back by the military.

And he is expected to inspect about 100 small houses currently being built by the Army on State land for Tamils whose own homes were destroyed in the fighting. 

Rasanayagam must wait a while longer for his case to be addressed. He was forced to flee in 1990 with almost nothing when shelling and fighting erupted between troops and Tamil rebels in his village. 

His land is among vast tracts still being used by the military and declared part of a high-security zone.

Activists say he is among about 100,000 still without their own homes seven years after the war ended with a final military push that claimed thousands of lives. 


‘This is a palace’

Anthony Quinn, who liaises with authorities on behalf of displaced Tamils, said Sirisena had given them hope after defeating former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, an autocrat who ruled for almost a decade.  

“Although the President gave a deadline of six months (for land to be handed over), we know it is hard work that can’t be completed so quickly,” Quinn told AFP at his shack in Kannagi, where 138 families live in one of 32 cramped camps on the peninsula. 

For impoverished widow Ravindrarasa Yogini, her nightmare has finally ended. She and her two children, aged nine and 16, have recently been allowed to return to their land just outside a military complex. 

They have erected a shack with an outside kitchen, with help from an UN agency, after discovering that their home was destroyed in the fighting. But they are hopeful of a Government handout to help them rebuild. 

“I never dreamt that I will get my land back,” she said. “This may look like a shack, but for me this is a palace.”

Ahead of Ban’s visit, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera toured the north asking those Tamils still waiting to go home for more patience.

“We will create conditions to ensure that people in Jaffna can return to their normal life very soon,” he told residents of several camps over the weekend.

Srikumar Selvy, three of whose five children were born in a camp, said they have no choice but to be patient. They have long lived in squalid conditions where 20 families share four toilets, but have nowhere else to go.

“We don’t know what it is like to be happy,” the 44-year-old told AFP at her tiny grocery store inside the camp. “We want to go to our own land. Only then will we be happy.”