31st December 2000
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Wild elephants, bad memories

Living amidst elephants and Tigers the one plea of the villagers in Eluvankulama border village, is not to forget them
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
It is virtually the end of the road. As you motor along beyond Puttalam, you suddenly come across an army camp, consisting of ramshackle mud huts with tin roofs, sitting on the Old Mannar Road. Just a few metres before the camp a mud track winds its way over a rotting log bridge across the Lunu Ela into the frontier village of Eluvankulama. Beyond this hamlet, the scrub jungles of the dry zone take over, luring visitors with their harsh and rugged beauty. 

But the stark beauty is lost on the peasants of Eluvankulama, who are struggling to eke out a living against all odds. For them it is "ali-koti prashna" (elephant-Tiger problems), for Eluvankulama is in no-man's land. The hapless villagers face threats not only from Tiger militants but also from marauding elephants in search of food.

The day we went to Eluvankulama the road from Puttalam was deserted. There were a few cyclists riding home furiously to beat the thunderstorm which was about to lash the area. As the raindrops hit the road, only the schoolchildren walking home sans umbrellas, shoes and even slippers for that matter, seemed to enjoy the muddy pools on the track leading home. A bus was a rare sight, though we passed one or two army trucks full of young fresh-faced soldiers heading most probably for Anuradhapura. 

No vehicles, except bicycles or an infrequent motorcyle can cross Lunu Ela because the bridge is a rotting mess. As we crossed it on foot, we were joined by A.P. Dammika Vasanthi, 23, heading home after a visit to Puttalam to get photocopies of her son's birth certificate.

The village had faced Tiger attacks in 1993. They heard shots and ran into the jungle to hide, early one morning. The next day, they cut across the jungle to the school and sought refuge there. Later they found out that the Tigers had attacked a police post close to Eluvankulama and killed 11 policemen, Dammika said.

Now they feel more secure with the army camp close by, but still people go out into their fields with some fear, she said.

The people in the area are mostly paddy farmers, who have tiny plots of land. Those who don't own land including women like Dammika, work for others as labourers cutting drains in the fields, cleaning the chenas or chasing parrots who come in hordes to attack the ripe paddy.

While walking along the single track which runs through the village we are joined by other women, who speak a mixture of Sinhala and Tamil. "We have Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Christians and we speak a mix of both Sinhala and Tamil," explains Dammika when she sees my puzzled stare. 

"We don't have any problems with that," she hastens to assure me, adding that the most recent troubles came from the marauding elephants. 

Village elder Cyril Appuhamy (65) nods his head vigorously and leads us to his house which has been destroyed by elephants. He had got the paddy harvests in and the grain was stored in his home. In the night the elephants came, knocked down a wall and foraged among the gunnies filled with paddy. He lives alone because his wife is dead and his children are married and live in the next village. He had shouted and started banging on a tin can, but to no avail. The elephants paid scant regard to him.

"There are about 25 elephants roaming the area. With the clearing of jungles they don't have foraging grounds and they are pushed into villages. Recently elephants attacked and killed a man who had gone to pick firewood in a village close by," Appuhamy added.

Most farmers light fires and watch over their fields at night, especially when the harvest is ready. They shout out "pel kavi" (folk songs) from their tree huts to keep the loneliness at bay during those long nights. For if a herd gets into the fields, the toil, sweat and money would be in vain and they and their families would starve the next year, until the next season.

The main grievance of the villagers is that they have been forgotten by the world especially the government. "We are a border village but what are the facilities given to us. Whenever there is an election, politicians of all hues come here and pledge this and that. All false promises. When the election is over, we are once again a small forgotten border village," says A.D. Gunapala Wickremasinghe bitterly, who was returning from the fields after a day of labour.

"Most of the families have gone away from the village. What will happen if we do the same?" he asks and provides the answer himself. "It will become desolate and the border will come further down towards Puttalam."

"See the road leading to the village. How can we sell our produce or bring back the essentials needed for our fields like fertiliser, when the log bridge is rotting and goes under water whenever there is even a light shower? Most farmers have given up their work and just go into the jungle for one or two bee-hives or kill an animal for their food. Even if we can save our paddy crops from the elephants, we cannot sell it for a good price, because taking it out of the village is impossible," he says.

With another year looming on the horizon the only New Year plea of the people of this frontier village is that they be given some facilities such as good roads and a good price for their paddy, to continue to live and hold this border village.

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