Bittersweet homecoming for Sri Lanka's displaced Tamils

Bittersweet homecoming for Sri Lanka's displaced Tamils
Sri Lankan war widow Evin Selvy, 45, listens to a question from an AFP journalist during an interview in Jaffna. Sri Lanka's separatist war ended six years ago, but war widows are facing new threats from social prejudice and sexual predators. After the military defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, thousands of displaced widows have returned to their homes in the Jaffna peninsula, their cultural capital, only to confront more hardships.
PHOTO: AFP

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka - When Balasundaram Rasamalar finally got back her home in Sri Lanka's battle-scarred north after years of military occupation, there was an unexpected problem. The toilet was still in the militarised zone - where civilians are not allowed.

Sri Lanka's army this year began returning land it has occupied since the end of a decades-long separatist conflict to its original owners in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna.

The move followed the election in January of President Maithripala Sirisena, who stood on a promise to bring about reconciliation with the island's Tamil minority.

But the process has created new boundaries that have split communities - and even individual homes - creating fresh resentment.

"I never thought we would get our land back," said Rasamalar, a 53-year-old Tamil who fled her home village of Varathalaivila when fighting broke out in 1990.

"We have to start our lives all over again."

Before 1990 some 10,000 families were estimated to live in Varuthalai Vilan, which lies south of a military airbase that served as one of the main staging posts in the battle against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Many, like Rasamalar, have been living ever since in camps for the internally displaced.

For the around 1,200 that have now returned, it is a bittersweet homecoming - all the houses and temples bear the scars of decades of fighting, and only a handful of villagers have been able to reclaim their property in full.

Rasamalar's neighbour got his water well back, but his house remains inside army-occupied territory.

Another villager faced the opposite problem: able to return to the house but with no access to water.

Military 'holding land'

Village chief S. Sugeerthan said people were hopeful when the new government began handing back military-occupied land this year, but he added, the military's continued claim over some private land six years after the war ended was not justified.

"The military released 600 acres here in March, but from that they took back a 40-acre enclave for themselves," he told AFP as he pointed to newly erected barbed-wire fences.

The fences force residents to make a detour of about 50 kilometres to travel from one end of the village to the other -- a distance of just four kilometres.

Inside the enclave Sri Lankan troops, most of them in camouflage T-shirts and trousers, can be seen tending to crops.

After decisively crushing the Tamil Tigers in a no-holds-barred offensive that ended in May 2009 security forces held onto large swathes of land in Jaffna, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo.

They set up lucrative hotels, restaurants and farming ventures - often selling crops to the very people whose land they were cultivating, who had been left destitute by the conflict.

"We believe the military is running at least a dozen hotels and restaurants on land taken from our people," said Sugeerthan.

Resettlement key

Sri Lanka has won praise for starting to hand back land seized by the military after the end of one of South Asia's longest and bloodiest ethnic wars that claimed over 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009.

But President Sirisena is under international pressure to do more to restore normality and ensure reconciliation in an ethnically divided nation.

"We'll do all we can to support the (Colombo) government as it makes progress in such areas as returning land, limiting the role of the military in civilian life, and trying to provide the answers on disappeared people," said US Secretary of State John Kerry during a May visit to Colombo.

Sirisena has dissolved parliament and called a general election for August in an attempt to consolidate power and carry out his promise of more reforms.

The top civil administrator in Jaffna, Nagalingam Vethanayahan, says resettling internally displaced people is key to the success of any reconciliation process.

"We have had discussions with the security forces and we expect, with time, more land will be made available," Vethanayahan told AFP at his district secretariat office in Jaffna.

The former secretariat, a colonial-era building dating back to the 19th century, was destroyed during decades of fighting, and the debris serves as a constant reminder of the region's violent past.

Vethanayahan has asked UN agencies for tents to provide temporary shelter for people leaving refugee camps to take possession of lands released by the security forces.

Vallipuram Rasamma did not recognise her old neighbourhood when she returned early this month to find her roofless home right next to a barbed wire fence.

The 71-year-old widow had spent only a few months in the house, one of dozens given to local residents by the Red Cross in 1990, when the then government opened peace talks with the Tamil Tigers.

Six months later, fighting broke out, forcing Rasamma and other residents to flee.

"I am sad I could not live in the new house," she said. "I have four grandchildren. I hope at least they will now be able to live here peacefully."

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