by Dilrukshi Handunnetti
At the entrance to Zone 0 or what is referred to as the Kadirkaamam Village, stands the usual sentry point.
Puppies at Kathirkaamar zone of Menik Farm in Chettikkulam ~ pic by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai ~ via twitter.com/DushiYanthini
There is barren land, piles of roofing sheets, the occasional UN Co-op vehicle transporting whatever that remains within the camp, once considered the world’s largest facility for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Inside the rusted barbed-wire fence, cattle graze and dogs roam.
“It is now closed and there is no harm if people visit the site,” assured the Government Agent of Vavuniya, Bandula Harischandra, who was kept busy by the final phase of the resettlement programme. To this ‘accessible camp’ with no temporary shelters, we made a visit, and were surprised when told that entry required approval from a competent military authority. The Government Agent’s assurance was not good enough, despite him being the public official, who administered the area in question.
This sprawling camp of 700 hectares, before its closure last Monday (24), was home to 80% of the country’s total IDP population and continuously drew local and international attention. Now that all IDPs have left the facility, it was only a handful of people who were there, including the military personnel on duty and those engaged in site clearance.
Menik Farm in the wake of IDPs
It was just two days before our visit that the camp was made empty. On 23 September, 130 people from 34 families, originally from Mandavil and Keppapilauvu left the camp. A second batch of 121 people from 76 families from the same places of origin left Menik Farm. On 24 September, clearing of the site commenced.
The few military personnel on duty were all set to leave the site, after three and a half years, by 30 September. The land was to be handed over to the owners, as much of the land was private property. To this empty camp, still entry was barred.
The military personnel at the entry point informed us that access was possible only with permission from the Zonal Commander. We informed that in Colombo, assurances were given about permission no longer being required to a camp that is closed. To enter, a letter from the Government Agent or the Ministry of Defence was required, a soldier informed us, having spoken to his senior officer on the telephone.
But, the Government Agent was in Colombo, and when spoken to over the telephone about the issue of permission, he graciously arranged a letter to be issued by his deputy. At the Divisional Secretary’s office, it was a long wait, while he communicated with his superior and then contacted the military.
As it transpired, the officer, who is in charge of Vavuniya administration, the Government Agent, should not be the one to authorize entry, but a competent authority, representing the military. It appeared that until the request for a letter granting permission, this process was quite unknown to even the issuers of letters.
When the letter was finally issued by the Divisional Secretary of Vengalacheddikulam, it had to be addressed to an unknown competent authority, and naturally, despite the letter, there was no entry to Menik Farm.
This process, it transpired, was not even known to those we met, including the senior public officials, and simply served as a crude reminder how militarized the country’s administrative process has become.
Those with free access
Resettlement, for all intents and purposes, was a process undertaken by the public officials and spearheaded at the level of the Ministry of Resettlement. While many agencies played significant roles, the Government Agent and the Divisional Secretariat were key players with huge responsibilities.
But, all that can be nullified in a minute. It is not just to enter a closed camp, that there is still a requirement for military permission, but also to take photographs from the outside or to talk to the villagers, who live within the Menik Farm village, that is not part of the IDP facility.
Cattle roamed freely within Menik Farm, as did dogs. The barbed-wire, now rusty, was a reminder about the three-year-long existence of the camp. It seemed only they had free access. In Sri Lanka, there is general acceptance that increasingly, there is not just power concentration, but also serious militarization.
The existing administrative structures are practically placed below the military establishment, undermining the role of the public service, charged with the duty of managing the State.
The amazing reality of Menik Farm was that despite being a closed facility, now only a reminder of the displacement caused by the war, beyond the role of facilitating resettlement, the actual decision making authority does lie with the military. It was never a war zone to be guarded to this point of exclusion. Nevertheless, the former camp, for all intents and purposes, remained under the military authority
There was speculation about the resettlement of 436 people, originally from Keppapilavu in the Mullaitivu District. They too left on 23 September, apparently protesting and demanding that they be resettled in their original places of residence. However, there was deafening silence about them, and the possibility of resettling them in their place of origin. In a blanket of secrecy and informational control, such voices will not find any space.
Being sent from pillar to post, and permission finally being possible through military channels in a country declared war-free, reflects administrative chaos or even strategic weakening of the role of civil administration.
In post-war Sri Lanka, to build understanding, it is not war tourism that needs encouragement, but facilitation of responsible and interested documentation of the ravages of war and the journey towards resettlement and beyond, reconciliation.
Resettlement today is largely a fait accompli, notwithstanding the well-guarded secret of the relocation of the final batch from Keppailauvu.
History as recorded by the victors
The war’s accounts were compiled mostly by biassed, pro-government voices. Access was allowed not to those committed to professional journalism, but the embedded kind. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had their share of embedded journalists and the military cum government had theirs. Between these two groups, the country has ended up with utterly biased accounts with facts and figures not even the State agencies could agree with.
The story of resettlement is the same. Statistics are released, but with little explanation. The process is carefully concealed. Access is only through the Ministry of Defence and one has to be entirely lucky to be granted access, despite IDPs having all been resettled.
For the military, it seemed a futile exercise for journalists to seek entry to a camp now closed. Yet, it is a location that played a significant role in Sri Lanka’s war, housing up to 80% of the war-displaced at one time. Its significance cannot be reduced merely by the absence of IDPs there. Menik Farm forms part of that history.
Just like the biased accounts of Sri Lanka’s war, the tale of resettlement will also hide the painful details such as the relocation of the families from Keppapilauvu, their protests, their angst, their appeals for resettlement in their place of origin.
Soon, the sanitized version of the resettlement story too shall be made public. We continue to record false history, each step being heavily controlled by the long arm of militarization. Sadly, Sri Lanka appears to have no problem with it.
When the Menik Farm IDP camp was first set up in 2009 and it housed 80% of the IDPs, an ambitious deadline of one year was set to empty it. For all the IDP camps, it was to be only three years.
On 7 May 2009, the government announced plans to resettle 80% of the IDPs by the end of the year, a further deadline of May 2009 followed an ambitious 180-day programme.
Deadlines were further revised by July 2009, and the aim was to resettle 50-60% of resettlement by November 2009.
By August 2009, less than 12,000 IDPs, a mere 5% of the IDPs had been released or returned to their places of origin. Following the 2009 monsoon that flooded the camp, more IDPs were resettled while some were held in military-operated ‘closed’ transit sites in their home districts.
Under an accelerated resettlement programme in October 2009, the Sri Lankan Government claimed to have released 41,685 IDPs. Resettlement increased in mid and late 2010, and by December 2010, 94% or 326,000 IDPs had been released or returned to their places of origin with only 21,000 remaining in the camps.
Resettlement continued in small batches throughout 2011 and the final batch of 1,185 persons was released from Menik Farm on 24 September 2012, bringing the story of Menik Farm to an end.
With small groups of people being displaced in the North and East, schools were often converted into temporary IDP facilities. As the war intensified, Menik Farm was officially formed in 2008, spreading across 700 hectares and demarcated into nine zones containing 21 closed camps.
As of 30 December 2008, some 281,698 displaced persons and an additional 300,000 IDPs lived within Menik Farm, some of them since the 1990s.
The camp’s overcrowding had remained a thorny issue with its appalling living conditions and non-adherence to the UN Sphere Standards that required the camp to restrict housing to a maximum of 160,000 persons.
At the height of the war, Menik Farm, spreading across the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee held over 300,000 IDPs.
Besides being the world’s largest IDP facility, it was also among the largest settlements in Sri Lanka.
The camp site demarcated into nine zones included
Zone 0 (Kadirkaamam Village),
Zone 1 (Ananda Kumaraswamy Village),
Zone 2 (Pon Ramanathan Village),
Zone 3 (Arunachchalam Village),
Zone 4, 5,6 and 7 (Maruthamadu Welfare Centre), Andiyapuliyankulam School and the Ariviththodam Sivanantha Vidyalayam.
Within the massive site were permanent structures that formed part of the camp such as the
Cheddikulam Base Hospital,
Cheddikulam Maha Vidyalayam,
Muthaliyankulam Maha Vidyalayam,
Sooduventhapualvu Muslim School,
Sumathipuram Welfare Centre,
Ulunkkulam,Tharmapuram Welfare Centre,
Veerapuram Maha Vidyalayam,
Gamini Maha Vidyalayam,
Kanthapuram Maha Vidyalayam aka Scandapuram,
Komarasankulam Maha Vidyalayam,
Kovilkulam Hindu College,
Nelukkulam Kalaimagal Maha Vidyalayam,
Nelukkulam Technical College,
Omanthai Maha Vidyalayam,
Pampamadhu Hostel School,
Ponthoodam Government Tamil Mixed School,
Poonathoddam College of Education,
Poovarankulam Base Hospital,
Poovarasankulam Maha Vidyalayam,
Puthukkulam Maha Vidyalayam,
Rambakulam Ladies’ College,
Saivapragasa Ladies’ College,
Thandikulam Maha Vidyalayam,
Vavuniya General Hospital,
Vavuniya Muslim Maha Vidyalayam,
Vavuniya Tamil Maha Vidyalayam,
Vavuniya Tamil Madhya Maha Vidyalayam,
Chavakachcheri Hindu College,
Chavakachcheri Hindu Ladies’ College,
Kaithady Ayurvedic University Hostel,
Kaithady Palmyra Research Institute 1,
Kaithady Palmyra Research Institute 2,
Kaithady Hindu Children Home,
Kodikamam Government Tamil Mixed School,
Kodikamam Thirunavitkarasu Maha Vidyalayam,
Kopay Teacher Training College,
Manalkadu, Murusivil Roman Catholic Tamil Mixed School,
Nelliyady Central College,
Thirunagar Old Court House,
English Training Centre in Mannar,
Mannar District General Hospital,
Mannar Welfare Centre, Sirukandal,
Arafat Nagar Muslim Maha Vidyalam,
Kantale Base Hospital, Methodist School,
Pulmoddai Field Hospital,
Pulmoddai Muslim Maha Vidyalayam,
Pulmoddai Sinhala Maha Vidyalayam,
Sahanagama Welfare Centre Site 1,
Sahanagama Welfare Centre Site 2,
Thampalakamam Peripheral Unit,
Trincomalee General Hospital and a number of hospitals in other districts were used for the facilitation of the IDPs. courtesy: Ceylon Today