We never thought this day would dawn

Asif Fuard talks to the first group of war displaced people from the north to go back to their homes in Mannar. They recall the ‘prison-like’ conditions in the welfare camps, their sadness of losing their loved ones and properties in their village and their hope for a new beginning. Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

With mixed feelings of both sorrow and hope, the people of the Musali Division in Mannar trekked miles last Tuesday, carrying their belongings, under the scorching sun, to return to their homes, after residing for more than one and a half years in welfare camps.

The area was buzzing with life with some households conducting religious rituals, children clad in uniform preparing to go to school to make up for lost time and fishermen making preparations to venture out to sea. After more than a year out of business, the co-operative store was trying to get essential items to distribute to the people, who were among the first batch to be resettled in Mannar.
There were also signs of a region badly battered by the war, with some people seen clearing up the debris caused by shelling during intense fighting.

After one and a half years residents make their way to their homes.

Mannar Government Agent G. Nicholaspillai was seen assessing the scene while travelling on the dusty roads in his SUV, making brief stops at some homes.

Naval personnel in charge of the overall security were seen patrolling the roads which till recently resembled a ghost town.

Although many of those trekking back were sad that they had either lost their loved ones or their homes totally or partially damaged, there was also hope as they returned to an area rid of the LTTE.

The LTTE had used Arippu and Silavaturai that come under the Musali Division, as their main Sea Tiger transit bases to smuggle weapons, explosives and fuel from Tamil Nadu. They also extorted money and forcibly conscripted children from this area.

The scenes were a marked contrast to what we observed in September 2005 when the Sunday Times visited the region when the military moved into Silavaturai to clear the area of the LTTE. Then the people had trudged miles to cross the Arivu Aru to welfare camps to escape the fighting. Those in Nanaddan and Murunkan camps were wary of their future. They feared they would lose their homes and would be permanently displaced people, forgotten with time.

Now, one and a half year’s later, despite their many losses they are hopeful of rebuilding their lives as normality slowly returns to this once war-ravaged region.

Give us our daily bread: Many began their lives with prayers

T. Mauran Leon, a fisherman said, that he never thought he would one day return home and in addition return home to an area rid of the LTTE.

“I am so happy. Living in the welfare camps was difficult. We didn’t have proper freedom to leave the camps and do our fishing. There were times I considered committing suicide as I was helpless and couldn’t support my family. When the LTTE was occupying our land we had to give them part of our catch or its equivalent in cash. But now, there is hope of a new beginning,” Leon said.

Lasantha Ranaweera (25) who is part of a small Sinhala community in Musali described his ordeal in the welfare camps as being similar to slavery. But now he was a happy man.

“I never thought the government would make arrangements to send us back home. As a labourer I couldn’t go to work because we were not allowed to go beyond 20 Kms of the camp. They took our identity cards. If there was an emergency even we couldn’t leave the camps because there were specific times to leave. We were like slaves or like living in a prison. I am now happy that we have finally got the opportunity to return home,” he said.

J.S Leon, an English teacher said, he was happy to come back home but he was returning to a house that had been damaged badly. “I notice my house doesn’t have a roof and has been badly damaged. I hope the government will speed up rebuilding these damaged houses,” he said.

Cruz Thespiti Amma said despite losing her properties and her house being damaged she was happy to come back. “We had several properties in the area. We had a small grocery shop and business was good. But the LTTE took our land and used it as their offices. In addition, they extorted money and also killed my nephew who refused to pay them,” she said.

A relieved Haniya Latheef said, “Our children have been deprived of proper education and our livelihoods were shattered during the past one and a half years. But now our children can lead a normal life and go to school like other children.”

Abdul Kareem whose boat was taken by the LTTE said, “I only hope the government will help us to get new fishing gear. I am happy to return home but at the same time I feel sad that my house was robbed while it was closed up. I need to find a job to support my family,” he said.

There were others like him who lamented that their belongings had been stolen despite their houses being closed up. “We didn’t have time to take our belongings when we left. We only took the basics. After one and a half years we come to our house only to find that our belongings have been stolen. The tractor, which I used to give on rent to farmers in the area, is no more. Now I don’t know how to support my family,” Andrew Cruz who is a retired school principal said.

The Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services has pledged to reconstruct the damaged houses and has allocated funds for the task.

The Ministry has also made arrangements to provide food and essential items for two weeks till the people are able to start working. In the meantime arrangements are being made to provide the fishermen in the area with boats and fishing equipment.

These people whose lives have been scarred by the war and rebel dominance are now beginning to see some little light at the end of the country’s bloody three-decade long conflict, as they return to their homes and look forward to rebuilding their livelihoods in the hope of a better tomorrow.

As one batch of people go back home after a year and a half the focus now turns to the nearly 280,000 displaced people in the Menik Farm in Vavuniya as I pass a sea of tents along the Medawachchiya-Mannar road. Only time will tell how long it would take to resettle these displaced people.

We will rebuild infrastructure and livelihoods: Basil

At a ceremony held to inaugurate the resettlement of the 561 families in the Musali D.S Division, Senior Presidential Advisor and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Northern Development, Basil Rajapaksa said over 800 million rupees had been allocated to develop the area.

Basil Rajapaksa with Douglas Devananda and Rishard Bathiudeen

He said 90 % of the resettlement process in the Musali division was complete and the government was making necessary arrangements to develop the infrastructure also help boost their livelihood.

Mr. Rajapaksa noted that construction of the Aravi Aru bridge across the Malwatu Oya would be completed within a few days and work on the Sangapitiya bridge was also progressing. He said the Mannar-Pooneryn A-32 road was being renovated while another road was being constructed through Eluvankulam to Puttalm.

Minister for Resettlement and Disaster Relief, Rishard Bathiudeen said resettlement was a time consuming and tedious process as the government had to clear the area of terrorists, anti personnel mines and repair infrastructure to create an environment conducive for the internally displaced people to return to their homes.

Ministers Douglas Devananda, Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, P. Chandrasekeran and Deputy Ministers Sachithanandan, and W.B. Ekanayake were also present on the occasion.

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