By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
On 19 September, the government officially announced the closure of Menik Farm, a camp for the war-displaced and set a deadline of concluding the process of return by 25 September, just six days after the announcement.
At that point, within the camp lived 367 displaced families and 110 of them were from Keppapilavu in the Mullaitivu District. For them, resettlement was not a current option, yet, they continued to hope that after three years in a displaced facility, it would finally be possible to return home.
Following the announcement, there were two movements on 24 September. One group was returned, while the other was relocated, also known as ‘settlement in a third place.’ There has been no question about the voluntariness of the 821 returnees comprising 257 families, originally from Manthuvil in the Mullaitivu District.
It is indeed on record that this movement met the ‘international standards of voluntariness’, safety and dignity and was well-facilitated by the international community. But, the 110 families that relocated to Seeniyamottai however, did not meet the same standards and was thus not supported by the international community.
To understand the grief of this displaced community, one should have some understanding about the extent of land they originally owned, the level of prosperity and the kind of homes they once lived in. Most of these IDPs were comfortable, owning land and cattle, symbols of their economic prosperity.
Ceylon Today reliably learns that at present, a total of 1,212 acres of privately- owned land in Keppapilavu is being occupied by the military. This includes 528 acres of residential land and 684 acres of agricultural land. It is also known that 278 individuals together with their families own the 528 acres of residential land for which documentation is available.
The authorities have been insisting that there was sufficient compensation paid upon temporarily acquiring the properties from civilians, a position vehemently opposed by the villagers who claim that they have never been paid a Rupee by way of compensation for the properties they have lost (to military occupation).
There has also been no proper acquisition as per procedures laid out in the Land Acquisition Act.
Not all Keppapilavu IDPs were prosperous and land owning though the majority were. Exactly 49 landless families agreed to relocate, while the remaining 110 flatly refused all relocation options offered to them.
Soon, another six families expressed willingness to relocate. These willing persons were transported to Sooriyapuram in Marittemapattu DS Division in the Mullaitivu District by 18 September. This indeed was voluntary relocation.
But, the remaining 110 families continued to reject all options including Sooriyapuram. They also objected to the government offer of 20-40 perches of land which they claimed was insufficient to continue their traditional livelihoods. Instead, they requested that their lands be returned. After much discussion, they agreed to temporarily relocate but requested a written assurance from the government that they be allowed to return home in the near future. This assurance was not given.
It now transpires that on 22 September, there was a meeting between the Government Agent and the military to discuss the issue of the Keppapilavu IDPs. The IDPs were explained the relocation option and the process to follow. They were also briefed about the assistance to be provided to them. Some of the IDPs have informed humanitarian agencies that they were threatened with the denial of humanitarian assistance, safety and security, electricity and water unless they agreed to relocate. They also claim that their right to peacefully assemble was also not recognized as some of the vocal protestors have been later warned by the authorities to ‘remain silent.’
Resistance by IDPs
We met this group of vocal and sad women in the village of Seeniyamottai in the Mullaitivu Distirct where they were recently relocated to. Some of them feel that they will never be resettled but others still harbour some hope of returning to the place of their origin.
The government has decided to resettle these 346 persons from the 110 families in the current place of relocation, Seeniyamottai where a temporary camp or a ‘welfare village’ has been hastily set up. They were moved in with the same haste on 24 September as the camp for the war- displaced in Menik Farm shut down.
According to Government Agent from Mullaitivu District, Nagalingam Vedanayagam, the current place of relocation is to be their permanent settlement. “The government, together with the relevant agencies, is doing their best to ensure they can easily settle in this village. It is not possible to return them to the place of their origin,” he explains.
During the height of the war, Menik Farm was home to over 350,000 IDPs and was a nightmare of an IDP facility due to the sheer numbers and the lack of facilities for the inmates. Despite the delays and fluctuations, there is agreement that it had been successful to a considerable extent, but when it comes to these 346 persons, the story immediately changes. The explanation by the authorities is that they are closer to home than before when they were living in the country’s largest IDP facility. But, such statements only add to their grief and anger and make them more despondent.
Government officials told us that they were not moved from the camp against their will. They were, the officials insisted, happy to leave the camp. “Some were crying and begging for release. There was no question of returning to their original home.
They just wanted to put an end to their IDP life,” a Vauniya-based government official explained. To this theory, most IDPs disagree.
Kamaladevi Amirthalingam cannot understand the logic in relocating them. “If people from Mullivaikkal and Vattuvaagal can be resettled, why can’t they resettle us” is her query to the authorities. One IDP Suriyakumari (43), had to walk past her home, which is currently occupied by someone who cooks for the Army. Another couple was now confined to the resettlement village that is being set up, in direct view of their own home where they spent 45 years of married life.
“In fact this is an insult. We feel humiliated,” Suriyakumari adds.
As per the government decision, permanent residential facility to this group of IDPs is now provided in Seeniyamottai.
“It is not possible to resettle them in Keppapilavu. It is sad but it is not possible. We are aware that they have protested and petitioned. Many of their homes were used by the military for the co-ordination of the humanitarian operations in Mullaitivu and are still in occupation. The IDPs will be facilitated to the maximum in their final resettlement and there will be no further relocation beyond this point,” adds Vedanayagam.
Restitution of lands
“We asked for our lands and our homes. We don’t want to go from place to place and live like gypsies. Who decides and for what, that our properties cannot be restituted? What is the public purpose for such acquisitions,” Kamaladevi Amirthalingam demands to know.
“It is clear injustice. Give us our lands back,” insists Chandra Sivaguru, a war-widowed grandmother who is now raising the children of her war-widowed offspring. For these IDPs, certainly the key issue is about resettlement in their place of origin. But there are other issues they want addressed. Many of their family members have disappeared during the war and they demand that investigations be concluded and they be duly informed of what happened to their loved ones.
“They were not terrorists. Most of them were taken on suspicion. The Government owes us an explanation as to what happened to them,” these villagers demand.
Next, they also want expeditious justice for those currently held in custody on suspicion. “Returning home means returning home to the entire family, the return of everyone. Some of our family members are in custody on suspicion,” adds Chandravankar Suriyakumar (48).
They insist that most of them relocated with the hope of being resettled in their own villages. Those who openly signed a petition challenging this move allege that their grievances have been overlooked to facilitate the military that continues to occupy their homes and lands. “We have nothing against the Army. The government must issue orders and allow us to return home. There is no war now. Normalcy requires normal conditions to prevail. This is far from it,” says a disappointed Sivanesan Gnanandan (29).
The villagers from Keppapilavu now say that they are once again displaced. Once displaced due to the war, the second time around, it is due to State occupation of their land. courtesy: CeylonToday