SATHURUKONDAN, Batticaloa: The bright sun reflecting on the zinc roofed row of tents, displaced persons cramped in small tents and women queued up waiting to collect water around a plastic tank—these are some of the common scenes at a welfare centre here meant for refugees displaced more than two years back.
They live on dry rations provided to them by non governmental organizations under trying conditions, eagerly awaiting to return to their homes far away in the Trincomalee district. However they have been told they would have to wait for months before suitable land to resettle them is found.
They have been told that their original land has been taken over by the government for development work and would have to be provided alternate land. “I was a rice mill owner in Sampoor and now I am living in this refugee camp with my family. I work as a labourer on a road project earning Rs. 500 a day. But I don’t have work throughout the month,” 52 -year-old Ramapillai Yogeshwaran, in the welfare centre said.
“We have not been given a date for our return or any indication where we would be resettled. Some of our friends who were displaced have gone back to Trincomalee, but they too are still living in welfare centres,” he said.
Yogeshwaran is one among some 6,000 people yet to be provided alternative land or accommodation in Trincomalee after the government acquired their lands on the grounds of declaring the area a High Security Zone or installing the coal power project to be put up with Indian assistance.
His family along with thousands of others left their homes as the security forces launched their operations to recapture a part of the Trincomalee district in April 2006, expecting to return to their villages and resume their livelihood. But, with almost a year being completed after the government declared that the eastern province has been liberated, some are still languishing in welfare centres with no indication when or where they would be resettled.
Life is becoming harder for these people in welfare centres. Some of the NGOs running these camps have already warned that sooner or later they would have to withdraw assistance due to lack of funds.
Each family member is entitled to five kilos of rice, 300 grams of lentils and 800 grams of sugar fortnightly while five other items weighing a kilo plus onions, potatoes, green chilies and vegetables are provided on a weekly basis.
But, it is a struggle for many families who need finances for their school-going children. One of the main problems is that the men do not have sufficient employment opportunities in the area on a regular basis.
“The children do not have proper educational facilities while we do not have sufficient money for books and stationery items,” Parwathi Thangamani said.
Many of those displaced were farmers or fishermen back home and now they lack regular employment that brings a steady income.
Some who fled their homes to welfare centres in Batticaloa faced harrowing experiences. Some of those who were injured in the process of fleeing are still undergoing medical treatment.
One of them is 16-year-old Alahendran Vathanaraja, who sustained injuries to his neck and throat in a shell attack. He still has to attend the clinic at the Colombo National Hospital after being hospitalised there for about seven and a half months.
“We travelled for 45 days on foot before we reached an army-controlled area,” he said.
Whenever those in the welfare centres raise the issue of resettlement with politicians or other officials they are told that the resettlement process would be completed as soon as possible.
Meanwhile Resettlement Minister Rishard Bathiyudeen told The Sunday Times that the government has identified alternate lands for the people who originally lived in the proposed coal power project area.
“I am visiting Trincomalee tomorrow. Almost 75 per cent of the displaced people from Trincomalee have returned to the district, but most of them are yet to be resettled and we will do so only with their written consent. We will not force anyone to return to any particular area,” he said.
He added that another group of displaced people were returning from Batticaloa tomorrow and that the process would continue. “The delay in resettling persons from Trincomalee is that they want to return to their original villages which have now been taken over for the coal power project,” the Minister said.
The displaced living in the camps also are worried that the Indian government that is involved in the coal power project and had not looked into the problems of the displaced.
A school in a tent
Two students at the welfare centre who are struggling to carryon with their own education are however conducting a pre-school inside a tent for the younger inmates.
Rasamanikkam Rouusaya, 21 and Sivarasa Thevavadani, 21, both from Sampoor completed their Advanced Level examination in 2006 while they were in a welfare centre in Trincomalee and have now registered for an external degree at the Batticaloa university. During the morning hours they conduct a pre-school for 15 children at the welfare centre run by the SevaLanka Foundation. They also help the NGO to maintain records of displaced persons and the dry rations distributed.
During the weekends they travel to Batticaloa to attend classes for the degree.
Both of them want to be teachers, and are yearning to return to their homes in Trincomalee.
Resettlement saga: What the officials say
The resettlement process of families that were displaced from Mutur in the military operations of April, 2006 will be completed within three weeks in areas that don’t come under the High Security Zone (HSZ), Trincomalee district secretariat sources said.
Families from the four Grama Sevaka Niladhari Divisions- Sampoor West, Sampoor East, Koonitheivu, and Kadatkaraichchenai in Mutur east will not be resettled in these same areas as they now come under the HSZ. Instead they will be relocated in areas identified in the villages of Pallikudiruppu and Ralkuli, the sources said.
Already 1,738 members of 534 families have been resettled in three GN divisions-Ralkuli, Kaddaiparichchan South and Pallikudiruppu
Of them 503 members of 160 families have been resettled in Ralkuli GN division, 501 members from 136 families in Kaddaiparichchan South GN division (Amman Nagar-246 family mmbers from 85 families and 253 members from 51 families in Arafat Nagar) and 734 members from 238 families in Pallikudiruppu GN division (102 members of 34 families in Srinivasapuram, 132 members from 45 families in Thanganagar, 40 members from 12 families in Sinnakulam, 44 members from 13 families in Iththikulam and 416 members of Pallikudiruppu).
Meanwhile 3378 members from 1027 displaced families have been sheltered in three welfare centres in Killiveddy, Pattithidal and Manalchenai.
Of them 2268 members from 683 families are sheltered in the Killiveddy welfare centre, 902 members from 276 families in the Pattithidal welfare centre and 206 members from 88 families in the Manalchenai centre.
Majority of those sheltered in these three welfare centres were from villages in Mutur east that now come under the HSZ.
A plea to two leaders
The displaced people from Mutur have appealed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to reconsider the decision to put up a coal power plant in the Sampoor area.
In a letter to President Rajapaksa the Displacd People’s Welfare Society located in Batticaloa has appealed to reconsider the decision to handover the four selected villages to the Indian government for the project, find alternate land and resettle them in their villages.Pointing out that they were permanent residents of the villages of Kadatkaraichchenai, Sampoor East, Sampoor West and Koonitheivu in the administrative district of Trincomalee they said they have been however living as displaced people since April 2006.
In a letter to the Indian Prime Minister the society said:
"The villages mentioned above have been our ancestral homes for the last two centuries. All the residents of these villages are Tamils. We have been able to build sustainable livelihoods, engage in paddy cultivation and cattle rearing. The land here is fertile and there is an ample water supply.
"Due to severe fighting in the area of Sampoor in 2006 we were forced to vacate our lands and become displaced persons in Batticaloa district where we temporarily reside. It is now two years since we were displaced and we are still living in camps where the conditions are severe.
“Recently we have heard distressing news and we have been made to understand that we will not be allowed to resettle instead we will be moved to places far away from our ancestral villages. We have also heard that the land in these selected sites are not suitable for carrying out our livelihoods as the land is infertile, there is inadequate pasture land and the water supply is unreliable.
"We have also been made to understand that the Government of Sri Lanka has entered into an agreement with your Government for the development of the area where our villages are found. … If this is true, the Government of Sri Lanka will be inflicting the worst type of injustice on us. Please reconsider your Thermal Power industry establishment in Sampoor area in Trincomalee district.”