...and their homes came tumbling down

By Asif Fuard, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama and Saman Kariyawasam

Tension remained high in Slave Island after officials of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Defence Ministry ignored a Supreme Court stay order on the eviction of residents occupying unauthorized structures in Glennie Passage and Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha and bulldozed a section of the houses on Friday amidst wailing and weeping of women and children who had lived there for over 40 years.

About 600 houses comprising 800 odd families were asked to leave their homes after the Ministry of Defence had ordered their eviction via a letter dated Thursday, July 10. Some letters had been pasted on the walls of a few houses.

According to the letter the Ministry was intending to use the land for military purposes as part of expanding what the Ministry identified as the “War Department” and that the residents would be given seven days to quit their homes. As Glennie Passage is situated close to both the Army and Airforce headquarters regular search operations are apparently carried out by soldiers.

However angry residents believe that the eviction was linked to the upcoming SAARC summit as VVIP helicopters would be flying over the mainly shanty area. On Friday this narrow Glennie Passage that has two railway lines running through it was a mini-battlefield with angry residents clashing with police personnel who were posted there to give protection to UDA officials.

The UDA started demolishing some of the houses using heavy equipment while a petition filed by 31 residents was being supported in the Supreme Court by lawyer Upul Jayasuriya. The bench comprising of Silva, K.Sripavan and P.A.Ratnayake issued a stay order until Tuesday and directed the Registrar to communicate the order by telephone and send a telegram to the first respondent Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Certified copies of the Supreme Court stay order suspending the demolition of the houses were delivered to UDA officials at the site as well as to the headoffice at Battaramulla and the demolition appeared to come to a halt by noon much to the relief of the residents.
However, soon after the male residents left their home for Friday Jumma prayers UDA bulldozers arrived on the scene once again and amidst tight security from the police and field force the demolition started again.

Residents say they were not even given time to gather their belonging and many were seen on their knees pleading with UDA officials to allow them to at least take their belongings out of the houses.
As emotions ran high angry residents started throwing stones at the bulldozers and soon there was mayhem as police retaliated with tear gas.

The stay order issued by the Supreme Court

In the melee a group who identified themselves as UDA officials manhandled and assaulted Yohan Perera a journalist from The Daily Mirror in the presence of many police personnel.

When other journalists had informed a senior police officer at the scene about the assault he apparently did little. A police entry was later made at the Slave Island police station. One of the culprits involved in the assault was seen in the company of police officers taking pictures of other journalists covering the incident.

Later, residents blocked the rail track as a mark of protest resulting in the Ruhunu Kumari coming to a halt near Glennie Passage. Many of those who lost their houses started chanting slogans incuding, “we want our houses”, “Instead of a house you gave us a dog cage”, “Mr. President! is this your Chinthanaya”, “we want justice, Mr. President”, “You live in a palace while we are on the streets”.
Meanwhile UDA Chairman Dr. P. Ramanujam told The Sunday Times on Friday night that he was unaware of any Supreme Court stay order and denied that his officials were involved in assaulting a journalist.

“Nobody informed us about the Supreme Court order. So we continued with the demolition. There is no reason for these people to make a fuss as we have provided them with alternative houses,” he said.
The UDA had apparently told the people that they could either move into temporary shelters provided by them or they would be paid Rs. 8000 monthly for one year if they found their own accommodation. But the people had not been convinced of the programme after they had seen the houses built for them.
The UDA had earlier promised the residents houses in Dematatoga area, but the programme did not materialize.

“We may be paid Rs. 8,000 for a year or so and thereafter what do we do? We need alternate houses or some reasonable compensation to move out from where we have been living for over 40 years,” said Sitthy Fareeda a resident.

The wooden plank houses still under construction

The temporary housing scheme provided by the UDA is yet under construction on Ferguson Road, Mattakuliya close to the banks of the Kelani river. The houses are being put up with wooden planks, similar to those put up during the 2004 tsunami.

“The houses are 10X20 and we were told there would be two toilets per 15 houses whereas our homes at Glennie passage has a toilet each. The houses are built on waterlogged land next to the Kelaniya River and will be prone to flooding,” another resident Akbar Jameel said.

Abdul Rahman a resident who has been living in Glennie Passage for nearly 40 years said he believed that the reason behind the sudden eviction was the upcoming SAARC. “We don’t have any quarrel with the government or the military. We have lived here for nearly 40 years. It is unfair that they are using national security as a cover for the true cause, the SAARC summit. The government doesn’t want the delegates who land their choppers on the neighbouring Air Force grounds to see these houses,” he said.

Ahmed Farook who is a carpenter lamented that he has been deprived of his livelihood.
“I don’t understand why they gave us such short notice. I don’t have a job. Doesn’t this country have enough problems already? Before hosting events like the SAARC summit the government should look into the wellbeing of the people,” he said.

“My children go to a school close by. We live a comfortable life here. The UDA has destroyed our houses and now we have nowhere to go,” Riyaza a widowed mother of three children said.

The goons who assaulted the journalist mingling with police personnel

“We have been living here for over 40 years. No government has objected to us living here. Politicians come here during the election and ask for our votes and they have never denied our right to live here. Now all of a sudden the Ministry of Defence has issued notice that they are going to evict us. All these years they never spoke of national security. But now when the SAARC draws close they decide to kick us around like a football,” he said.

“Is destroying houses what SAARC is all about? We are on the streets due to SAARC. We have lost all our belongings, our children cannot go to old school again. When will we ever get justice,” Shyamila said.

Yesterday too UDA officials arrived once again under heavy security cover and with bulldozers to evict residents, but were not successful, The Sunday times learns.

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