Sri Lanka: Tamil refugees sent home, but villages are worse than refugee camps

world | Nov 03, 2009 | By Asia News

Batticaloa – Refugees in Welighakandiya and Kudumbimalai, near Batticaloa, went back to their villages of origin after years as war refugees, but now “they seem to have returned to a refugee camp or an open air prison,” said Raajan Francis, coordinator for the Praja Abhilasha network, an organisation that helps settle land disputes.

In 2007, about 700 Tamil families left Welighakandiya fled the war and found refuge in Mailanbawali. On 29 June of this year, after government troops re-captured the North Eastern Province, the first 32 families went home. Instead of moving back into their homes, they were settled in the local school.

For a month, they tried to rebuild their homes as best they could, using clay and tin sheets donated by an NGO.  However, the houses are still far from being rehabilitated and one of the two wells used for drinking water is still out of order. Services are non-existent and people must still go the forest despite a military ban. On top of it all, there is hunger. Six months of food rations provided by the authorities will run out very soon.

“In the beginning, the government gave us some rice, dhal, Anchor milk powder, coconut oil etc. but most of these items were expired, so we couldn’t used them,” a woman from the village said. “Dry rations are not sufficient at all. Some times to suppress our hunger we catch fish from our lake and dry them in the hot sun. But what can we do to feed our children?”

Welighakandiya is 18 kilometres from the nearest town, Maha Oya. “If somebody gets sick or hurt, we must use makeshift transport to get them there. We have to go to the army base and beg for mercy,” a villager said.

Work is also hard to come by. “They told that everything that was needed would be provided to start over; a little bit of cattle, some sheep, seeds to start planting,” 66-year-old K. Mahalingam said. “Instead, we got nothing. Our men have to go elsewhere to work.”

P. Murugahaiaa, 54, father of three, used to own a large piece of land. Now he has to trek many kilometres to reach Kaduruwela, Pollonnaruwa or Hanguranketha to find someone who will hire him.

The situation in the village of Kudumbimalai may be even worse than in Welighakandiya. The residents, 120 Tamil families, were resettled back on 31 March after spending the war as refugees in the village of Kirankorakallimadhu.

Now the six months of government food rations have passed. There is not enough food and the promised help to restart farming has not arrived. Some manage to fish, but without fishing gear there is not much they can catch.

Kudumbimalai is under army administration. Residents are worried for the future and miss their days as refugees in Kirankorakallimadhu.

When they talk about the conditions in which they are forced to live, they complain about how the government is treating them, but on condition their name not be mentioned.

“The military forced us to come back to Kudumbimalai,” one of them said. “One day, soldiers, police and local and government officials summoned us and told us that if we did not go back they would give our land to people who needed it. This is the only reason for coming back.”

“We have no water, food, minimal sanitation, or hospitals. The school goes as far as grade 5. Houses, land and fields, are all destroyed,” said another disconsolate Kudumbimalai resident. “In short, we have no life. Plus, no one can enter the village without the military’s permission.”

“Helping these people is complicated,” said Francis Raajan, coordinator of the Praja Abhilasha network in the area. “First of all, we need the permission of the government just to check out the situation. Last time we tried, we were not allowed in.”

For Raajan, “Kudumbimalai residents live in an open air prison.” The government “should let them be free. Their fundamental rights have been violated. We are ready to help them; if they want to go to court to lodge a complaint, we will back them.”



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