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It is New Years day once again. The festive mood is in the air. But to those living in the refugee camps, thrown out of their homes by the war, it doesnt seem to make any difference. They live in the hope that perhaps next year they can join their brethren in the celebrations. Hiranthi Fernando reports from Kebithigollewa
All around the country, Sri Lankans are celebrating the Sinhala and Tamil New year. In the villages, the new rice has been harvested in readiness for the Avurudu Kiribath. Shops, pavement stalls and the many Avurudu Polas are crammed with shoppers buying food, new clothes and gifts for their families. New year festivities are being held everywhere. But for one group of Sri Lankans, the numerous refugees displaced from their homes due to war and violence this is no happy occasion. For them there is little hope for a happy or prosperous New Year. Herded in makeshift refugee camps, they live a day-to-day existence, uncertain of what the future holds for them.
At Kebithigollewa, over 1,700 refugees from remote jungle villages are accommodated in two refugee camps. One of these camps, situated in an arid slope rising from the Anuradhapura-Welioya road, houses 209 families in a cluster of cadjan huts. These families have many harrowing tales to relate of the experiences which forced them to flee from their homes in fear. Their houses destroyed, their lands and cultivation abandoned, their lives in abeyance, they wait for the day they could return to their villages.
"We are ready to go back even now if we have security", said US. Somapala from Halmillavetiya. Fifty eight families from this village have sought refuge at the Kebithigollewa camp. "The terrorists attacked all the neighbouring villages", Somapala said. "Only ours was left. The people were frightened. So we abandoned the village. We were able to bring some of our belongings", Somapala says a few of the men have remained in the village to safeguard the coconut and other trees from wild animals. These villagers sleep in the jungle at night in fear of a terrorist attack. Somapala who pays an occasional visit to his village says the houses are destroyed and all their belongings stolen.
Unable to cultivate their lands, these refugees are facing severe economic hardships. The only assistance they get is from the Samurdhi Scheme and the Lokadhara Scheme which replaced Janasaviya. U. Kapuruhamy from Yakawewa has spent 1 1/2 years at the camp along with 94 other families from his village. "The terrorists attacked our village", he recalled. "Three villagers were killed and five were taken away. The rest of us fled". Kapuruhamy has not been to his village at all since the day he left. He wonders what has happened there. Kapuruhamy, his wife and child have to manage on the monthly allowance of Rs. 500 which he gets from Samurdhi. Rs. 100 of this amount is deducted by the bank for a savings account and Rs.20 goes for insurance. Kapuruhamy gets dry rations to the value of the remaining Rs.380 from the cooperative store. "This is not enough for us to live", he said. "At home we could have lived on our cultivation".
The men folk in the camp who are able, go out seeking casual employment to earn some money. The lack of income is severely felt by all the families. The refugees say that there is very little casual work available nearby. Some of them go out to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Rajangane, and other Mahaweli irrigated areas. After the harvesting season, there is very little work available. The men who go out on casual work get paid Rs. 100 per day. When they pay for their food and transport not much is left. They are only able to get an average of six to seven days of work each month. "We are farmers, used to cultivating our lands", said Somapala. "Very few of us are able to do any other work. Also, living in the town, our expenses are high. At home we got most of our food from the garden and meat from the jungle".
"Our childrens education has suffered since we left our villages", lamented several of the womenfolk. Due to over crowding at the Kebithigollewa School, a special afternoon session has been arranged for the refugee children. "For 450 children between Year 1-11, there are only four teachers", said one mother.
"Lack of toilet facilities is another problem we have", said Rasadawathi and Chandralatha of Kalepuliyankulama. Although 25 toilets had been constructed for the camp, these had been built as a temporary measure for a few months. Two years having passed, the toilets are no longer usable. Water is brought to the camp by bowsers and filled into several Aluminum tanks. Two tube wells have also been sunk at the two ends of the camp. For bathing, the refugees go to the tank (wewa) as long as there is water. When the tank dries up during the drought, bathing too becomes a problem.
Many of the refugees at Kebithigollewa have suffered the loss of family members. "My husband was taken away by the terrorists along with two other villagers when they were watching the fields", said Premawathie from Nikawewa. Her husband was a home guard. "All the villagers then abandoned Nikawewa and fled to the next village, Talgahawewa. After two days, terrorists attacked Talgahawewa". Premawathie, who hid in the jungle with the other villagers during the attack, managed to escape to Kebithigollewa afterwards. She has had no news of her husband since he was taken away. Premawathie has seven children, the eldest a daughter of 17 years and the youngest only four years old. She has not received any compensation from the Homeguard Headquarters yet. Premawathie has to bring up her family on the monthly rations worth Rs. 1000 which she gets from Samurdhi. Back in the village she and her husband owned a herd of 40 cattle. When she is short of money, she sells one of her cattle. She now has twelve remaining. "I dont know what I can do after I sell all my cattle", she wonders.
W. Siriyalatha recalled the attack on Talgahawewa. "They came at 5.20 in the morning. We were hiding in the jungle. An old woman who could not run away to hide was butchered by them along with a home guard who remained. Our houses were burnt and all our valuables taken away".
"My sisters son and my brothers son were both taken away by the terrorists I l/2 years ago", said Muthunona of Guruhalmillewa. "They had gone to the well for water. For one year we waited in vain for news of them. The ICRC kept telling us they were alive". "We searched the jungles for days", said Piyasena, her brother and father of one of the young men. "Two months ago, their bones were found in the jungle", he said with tears in his eyes. "They were identified by the clothes and a double tooth one of them had".
Twenty-six-year old Alice Nona, the widow of one of the abducted men, is the mother of six-year-old twins Sadith and Yamuna. Her husband had been in the Police. He left the service and came home to be with the family and cultivate their land. "My children waited for their father to return", said Alice Nona. "Now they understand that he will never come back and they cry for him."
"Our village was in the middle of the jungle, the last village before Vavuniya", said Muthunona. We have to walk six miles through the jungle to the town. The children have to walk 2 I/2 miles through the jungle to the school at Medawewa. No buses or other vehicles go that way. We dont hear the sound of a voice other than our own".
The widows and young families of these two victims of terrorism, have to live on the Lokadhara assistance through which they receive Rs.150/- worth of dry rations per person fortnightly. "We have still not got the Lokadhara rations for last month.
It does not come regularly on the due date. At least if we receive the rations regularly, we can manage to eat", they said. "We sometimes feel it is better to die", said elderly Muthunona. "One and a half years is a long time to live like this."
The horrors of the attacks on their villages and the tension under which they lived are still vivid in the minds of these refugees.
The Tigers came twice to our village," said Punchibanda, a homeguard from Kanugahawewa. "The families were hiding in the jungle with some of the home guards to protect them. They attacked the Police Post at 3 am, killing two home guards and a police sergeant. After they left, we took the terrified families to safety."
"For one year, we spent the night in the jungle," said Menikrala of Kelapuliyankulama. "We used to look after our homes and our cultivation by day. At 6 p.m. each evening, we went to the jungle to hide, taking our wives and little ones with us. We lived in constant fear. Twenty one died in the attack on Puliyankulama Police Post on 22nd May 95. We took whatever we could and fled."
Wansawathie lived at Kaduruwewa, a tiny village of only three families, situated one mile within the jungle. The Tigers came twice to our village. We hid in the jungle. They took all our belongings and wrote LTTE on the wall," Wansawathie said.
Although now living in relative safety with a temporary army camp adjoining their settlement, these refugees face many problems. Lack of income for even their basic needs is what irks them most. It is sad that they seem to be forgotten by most and no longer get any assistance by way of food or clothing from anyone. It is also sad that even the assistance granted by aid organizations seems to be wasted and not put to best use. For instance, one refugee, Karunadasa pointed out that a well known NGO secured the contract for cementing 150 sq. feet of floor space and providing six zinc sheets to line the bottom edge of the walls of their huts. The contractor was paid Rs. 7,000 per unit. The refugees feel much more could have been done with this same amount.
"Even when we go back to our villages, we have to re-establish ourselves," said Menikrala, one of the refugees. "Our homes are burnt down. What the terrorists left behind have been destroyed by elephants. Our wells and cultivation ruined. Even the roads leading to the villages have got covered up. We will have to start from scratch." "We hope the government will help us to rebuild our houses and to rehabilitate ourselves for the first year." said Somapala, another refugee.
The Grama Sevaka, Chandrasekere who handles divisions 27 /28 and the two refugee camps says he is trying to find out the problems of the refugees and bring them some relief. Chandrasekere who has taken over the area three months ago, says that the government is planning to give a grant on a staggered basis for rebuilding the houses. However, the refugees say that some get the payment and some dont. There are also long intervals between stages. Then they may have to lay the foundation and wait months to continue. They say that ideally, the whole village should receive their payments simultaneously in order to carry out the work economically.
Chandrasekere says that the lack of funds is a great drawback. The government assistance has been given as and when it was available. He has had discussions with the Director of Lokadhara to obtain Lokadhara assistance for 60 - 70 more families. A list is now being prepared. Chandrasekere is also looking after the hygiene and the water supply to the camp. He contacts NGOs working in the area to obtain whatever assistance possible.
Lt. Colonel Siripala Handapangoda is the Army Officer in charge of the Eastern Sector of Anuradhapura. A temporary army camp is located adjoining the refugee camp. Col. Handapangoda says that 27 villages in the Kebithigollewa A.G.A. Division have been abandoned. The Army have started constructing a bunker line from Kelepuliyankulama to Padavi. "There was a seven kilometer gap between Kudakachchikudiya and Kelepuliyankulama," said Lt. Col. Handapangoda. "The LTTE found it easy to infiltrate through this gap. Now we have closed the gap and they do not have such easy access to the villages. The bunker line is being constructed north of the villages, the cultivation area and the tanks. Protection will thus be given not only to the villages but also to their paddy fields and chena cultivation. When this is finished, they will have adequate security to be resettled".
The refugees are fortunate to have the assistance of the army personnel in the area. Lt. Col. Handapangoda has arranged for the refugee children sitting the GCE O/L. examination to be given some classes by wives of army officers and some retired officers. The army is also planning new year festivities for the refugees.
The refugees speak nostalgically of the New Year festivities held in their villages. "We cultivated our lands and we lived well," said the women folk. "We enjoyed the New Year in our villages. We had to leave all our belongings and flee to save our lives. Today, we are uncertain of our next meal. This year, we cannot afford to think of any New Year celebrations. Perhaps next year, we hope and pray that we could celebrate the new year in our own homes."
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