(Reproduced from the Sunday Times of February 24, 2002)
Tania Fernando and Faraza Farook report on the resettlement of refugees in Trincomalee
A bumpy drive on mine blasted roads alongside the magnificent Nilaveli beach in Trincomalee to a sunny little village, awakening to fresh hopes of peace after having lived through the harsh realities of war.
Flanked by an inviting sea on one side and a placid lagoon on the other, Kuchchaveli, our destination 30 kms away from Nilaveli, was linked by the Sulfair Bridge, a favourite haunt for fishermen. The bridge is an important connection between the two sides. For without it, all ties between Kuchchaveli and Nilaveli would be broken.
With renewed peace efforts, homes once abandoned are coming alive with a fresh coat of paint, new tiles and smiling faces. People are slowly returning to homes they once deserted in fear for their lives. The houses have hardly anything left to protect them from the harsh rays of the sun. As they start life afresh, sarees, cloth and pieces of wood or aluminium sheets have temporarily replaced stolen windows and doors. To some, coming back to their homes has brought much relief from the hassles of being displaced. Businessmen meanwhile have expressed hope of improved trading with resettlement programmes taking place.
Many were returning after a lapse of ten years while there were others who had been shuttling back and forth from refugee camps. The village was divided into three segments - one comprising Tamil families, another with Muslims and the third was a Sinhala village.
However, amidst the joy and hope of peace, there is scepticism in the minds of many. What if war breaks out again? Where would we run?
The little pockets of people are still alert and observant about new visitors, inquiring into details before they divulge any information.
Najeema from Kuchchaveli had moved to Horowpathana in 1990 when most residents in the area were affected by the war. Twelve years later, Najeema and her family have returned to Kuchchaveli to find their houses in ruins. An old truck stands in the garden filled with dust and garbage from years of neglect.
A week later, the family was busy whitewashing and cleaning the house. The missing roof had to be replaced with new tiles while aluminium sheets provided a temporary cover to the open windows and doors.
Najeema's sister Kaleefa Umma too, had hardly anything left in her house. "When we fled Kuchchaveli, this house was newly built, but today only the four walls are standing. Everything has been destroyed or stolen and we have to start all over again." There was another house in the same compound belonging to their mother. Now only a pile of rubble stands in its place.
Living in the shanties clustered in one area is Seenithambi and his 16 children who returned last month from a mosque in Kopalapuram that had been a haven for refugees since 1990. He could hardly recall the names of his grandchildren; for that matter, he couldn't remember the names of his own children.
His twenty-eight-year-old daughter Suriyakala was suffering from fever and was squatting outside, unable to bear the heat inside her house. Her house, a ramshackle hut had hardly any possessions. Some clothes were hung on a line, one or two cups and a few gallon cans that stored water. "We've returned to our home, but there is no identity to it. We don't even have mats to sleep on and when it rains, we huddle together in a corner. The 15 or 20 cattle we had have been stolen," Seenithambi said.
Amidst the suffering endured during their days as refugees, Suriyakala gave birth to a baby girl. Now six-years-old, Brindha is deprived of a normal childhood, as she suffers from a partial paralysis. Brindha had been given a vaccine when she was a baby and despite advice from the doctors to bathe her only in warm water, the child was given a cold-water bath. The consequences were disastrous as today, Brindha is unable to speak or use her hands.
Along the road to Nilaveli stood a large house sans its doors and windows with a big garden. The place was filled with activity, as if life had once again returned to the once abandoned home. Nallathambi Puvathipulla, in her early 70s had brought with her two other families to start life again in her own house. "I have returned to a house that's empty," she says adding, "we had at least 500 goats and cows and today there is no trace of our belongings."
Puvathipulla was forced to return to her home after the head of the mosque that gave her and hundreds of others shelter when they fled in the 90s asked them to leave. "We were asked to go because everything seems to be returning to normal. But it's so unpredictable, we may have to run again if war breaks out," she said uncertainly.
Despite the faint joy of homecoming, even if it was to a crumbling building, life has been hard for those coming back. Resettled refugees do not receive the dry rations they were once entitled to, she added.
At Puvathipulla's house was a little boy left by his mother who had gone to work. He had suffered severe burn injuries on his hand, but no one seemed moved to take him to the hospital even when we offered them a lift. "If his mother has to take him to hospital, she will lose her day's pay and who will feed the children? The boy will recover with time," said Puvathipulla.
A former glass factory at the third milepost was a transit point for refugees being resettled in Jaffna. Here displaced persons from Killinochchi, Mannar and Mullaitivu in the Wanni district are housed before being sent back to Jaffna via Trinco. The first batch of 22 families totalling 79 members were sent on February 3 and another batch of 22 families comprising 41 members were resettled in Jaffna on February 11.
Though people were happy to once again return to their homes, they are still haunted by grim memories and fears. Some have no home, but were left with no option but to return to their villages as the government has begun its resettlement programmes. With a decade or more spent at refugee camps, displaced persons have formed their own cliques and now breaking away seemed hard to some.
Relaxation of restrictions, lifting of embargoes and opening of roads has opened a new avenue for those in the war-torn North and East. With life returning to normal, all they hope for is that there would be lasting peace.
A unified assistance scheme, which commenced in 1988, is being modified to accommodate the needs of refugees who are returning to their own homes.
Mr. A Jayaratnam, Secretary to the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Resettlement said that housing grants, productive enterprise grants, and a settling allowance totalling Rs. 65,000 are given to those who either return voluntarily or are sent back from the refugee camps. "Once they are resettled we ensure that they settle and have economic stability," Mr. Jayaratnam said, adding that they also look into infrastructure development. "We look into the need for schools etc., and even road repairs."
Meanwhile, Mr. S Arumainayaham, Divisional Secretary for Trincomalee said that once the refugees have returned to their homes, they are given dry rations for a period of six months, which gives them time to get back on their own feet. "A national policy is also being formulated with regard to the resettlement of refugees at present," he said.
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