Sri Lanka's war-displaced yearn to return home
By P. Karunakharan
Vavuniya (Sri Lanka): Having lost his father to long-range fire, 23-year-old Aruldasan and a group of 40 other war-displaced people recently succeeded in escaping from Mullaitivu after 20 gruelling days.
He was working for an international aid agency when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forced him to undergo 10 days of "civil defence training", which was compulsory for everybody in the age group between 18 and 60 in the Tiger-held territory.
"My five-member family and I were living in Selvapuram. We tried to escape thrice but succeeded only in the fourth bid," Aruldasan said.
Vavuniya, 254 km north of Colombo and at one time the northern most government held town, is now getting overcrowded with thousands of people displaced by a war that finally seems to be ending.
Over 35,000 people, who managed to escape the war zone and enter the government-held parts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, are now housed in 16 camps or welfare centres here.
Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told a group of visiting journalists that the 35,000 also included about 250 who had admitted that they had been with the LTTE.
"These 250, we know they are terrorists but not the hardcore types. We have allowed them here to rehabilitate themselves," Nanayakkara said.
Vavuniya is busy getting ready to receive several thousands of IDPs -- people displaced from their homes within Sri Lanka. They are expected to arrive as the military further tightens its noose on the LTTE, now boxed into a 73 sq km land stretch.
Aruldasan said he reached the government-held area Jan 26 with his family using a hazardous sea route and is at the heavily protected Kadirgamar Transitional Relief Village, the largest camp housing 2,754 inmates.
Managed by the local authorities, the camp has a temporary bank, a post office, a Hindu temple and a school that functions under a tree.
"Safety of our life is guaranteed here. We get food but there are shortcomings. Neither are we allowed to move out of this camp nor are outsiders allowed to visit us," said a young man.
"Many of us have been displaced over the past one year, from one village to village, before entering the government held area. Now that we are in safe hands, we urge the government to resettle us in our own villages," said Nesamani, who like many others defied the LTTE and reached the army-held territory holding a white flag.
Among the IDPs were two Jaffna University second year students who got stuck in LTTE land when entry/exit point to Jaffna peninsula was closed in August 2006 after intense battles.
Caught between the intense shelling and forced LTTE recruitment, these undergrads, whose names have been withheld for safety reasons, said they had hid from the LTTE for one year to avoid forced conscription.
"Forced recruitment of the LTTE who demanded at least one member from each family was a prolonged nightmare," one of the students said.
They said scores of civilians were killed and wounded in shelling but added that they could not identify if the guilty were the military or the LTTE.
Every refugee had an ordeal to relate, but chose their words carefully, knowing well the dangers of speaking too much.
It is apparent the government has undertaken a challenging task to set up these temporary camps. But the inmates desire a lot more facilities.
Explained P.S.M. Charles, the government agent of Vavuniya: "It is not a detention camp. We are keeping them in the safest area with basic facilities until they are resettled in their native places."
Charles added that a process was underway to have a data bank on every individual.
Refusing to set a timeframe for the permanent resettlement of IDPs in their original places, Charles said the government was taking steps to de-mine the former conflict zone, restore infrastructure facilities and bring back civil administration "so that we can resettle these people in the same areas where they were living very soon".
Charles said the agriculture department had been given some 15 acres to establish a community farm within the camp. "Vocational training has also been started. Some are employed in construction work within the camp.
"We have allocated another 1,000 acre divided into three zones for future IDPs. We can accommodate 39,000 families there."
Shiyana, a 14-year-old student of Kilinochchi St. Theresa Girls' College, is in a white uniform attending a class under a tree.
"When we were in the (LTTE area), we did not know whether we could study because of the war. Now that we are here, we have the desire to study and become able citizens of Sri Lanka," Shiyana said.