Saturday, March 25, 2006

No peace for us- Plight of people in Thalaimannar ,Pesalai Welfare Camps

By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
in Trincomalee and Mannar

“I have two sons, who studied in India. Now after coming to Sri Lanka they are refusing to go to school, as they are over aged. I do not know what to do. They want to go to work, but I want them to continue their studies. My husband is a fisherman. He did some odd jobs like cutting trees, taking sand when he was in India. Now he has no permanent job, he earns Sri Lankan Rupees 75/= -100/= per day, and it is not enough to look after the family” says 35 years old Vijaya Alagumuththu, who went to India in 1990, and returned to Thalaimannar from India in 2004.

Her family lives in a very small hut in Thalaimannar. There are fifty huts like this in Thalaimannar, which are given to refugees returned from India, who had no place to go. Their houses are either in the high security zones or they have no land . These huts have basic facilities such as toilets and wells, but there is no privacy.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that the total number of persons displaced by ethnic conflict is 352,374. Out of this 72,791 persons are in the welfare camps and 279,583 persons are staying with their relatives and friends. There are 276 welfare camps.

The internally displaced persons started to move from Sri Lanka to India in late 1980’s. By 1995, the ethnic conflict intensified and had generated widespread displacement, uprooting over a million internally displaced persons and driving over 100,000 refugee to neighbouring India.

After the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the then Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2002, refugees from India started to return. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since then, 6,823 persons returned from India to Mannar district through December 2004. There are six welfare camps in Mannar district. 3,479 persons are living in welfare camps, and 26,809 persons are living outside the welfare camps in Mannar district.

This is a policy innovation introduced after much lobbying by Mr. William Clarance, when he was the head of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombo in the early 90’s. It was to send the Internally Displaced Persons in the same camps with the same facilities to refugees, who alone had been the responsibility of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We have no land, where shall we go? I am very frustrated, because nobody is taking care of us. Nobody comes here to ask what we need, except the politicians who visit us, when the elections are nearing. We do not have enough toilets and water tanks. We do not have voting rights either. When we applied the application forms were returned, and we have been asked to apply from our original places. If we can go to our original places; Why are we staying in a welfare camp and undergoing several problems?”, queries 58 year old Meenaambal Subbiah in Pesalai welfare camp. She was displaced from her own place Midaththanai in the hill country after the July 1983 riots, and went and settled in Kilinochchi. Then she was displaced to Pesalai from Kilinochchi in 1996. There are 932 persons staying in the Pesalai welfare camp. They say that they do not get anything, other than coupon for foodstuffs, which is not enough to look after everybody in the family.

Most of the men are farmers, and have no lands to cultivate. They go to sea for fishing in Pesalai. Others do labourer jobs and earn Sri Lankan Rupees 300/= per day. Old women in this area go to the shore and help the fishermen to sort out the fish, clean the fishing nets and mend the fishing nets and earn some income to look after their families. But young women cannot do these job as they are shy and insecure. And there is no self employment scheme for these young women. Therefore they stay at home after they leave school. There is only one school. They cannot afford to buy medicines from the pharmacy.

“I have five children to look after, and I am a mason, and earn Sri Lankan Rupees 300/= per day, which is insufficient. We are neglected, no one knows about us”, says 40 years old Ratnam Mahalingam, who was displaced from Kilinochchi in 1999.

“The cost of living is rising daily, I cannot feed my three children. We do not have enough to eat” says 37 years old Selvamalar Segar, who was displaced from Adamban to Pesalai in 1996.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 930 families have returned to Sri Lanka from India through mid April 2005. It provides traveling cost for all the returnees and they get Sri Lankan Rupees 25,000 worth of materials to build a temporary shelter. And if they have a land ,they will receive Sri Lankan Rupees 1,50,000 to build a permanent house. But most of the returnees have no lands.

Alles Garden Welfare Camp, Trincomalee:-

“If the Sri Lankan armed forces do not leave from our lands, we will not go back to our own places. And we do not want to live next to a camp of security forces. We want them to leave from our lands permanently and let us go there to restart our lives. There had been three years of peace in Sri Lanka, but we are still living in a welfare camp. Our small huts were washed away by tsunami as well. Since we have no place to go, we are living here. How many years can we live like this? The government has to do something sooner than later, otherwise we will take up arms as well, we have no choice” says 44 years old fisherman Thangarajah Yogarajah, who is staying at the Alles Garden welfare camp in Trincomalee district. He was displaced from Kuchchaveli in Trincomalee district. He went to India with his family in 1985 , returned in 1990 and lived in a welfare camp, went again to India in 2000 and returned to Sri Lanka in early Januray 2004.

There are 1,479 persons staying in this welfare camp. People who were displaced from Thiriyai, Kumburuppitty, Kallampattai, Pulmottai, Nilaveli, Saambalthivu, Kuchchaveli, Muthur, Trincomalee , Pankulam, Jaffna, Batticaloa and Irakkakandy are staying here.

This welfare camp was destroyed by the tsunami. Most of them lost their temporary shelters, boats and fishing nets. They have neither boats nor fishing nets to go to sea for fishing. They find it difficult to run their lives and do labourer jobs to earn. The most of the refugees in this particular welfare camp are frustrated, as they are living there for more than ten years.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,991 persons returned to Trincomalee district from India up to December 2004. There are ten welfare camps in Trincomalee district, 2,395 persons are living in welfare camps, and 17,188 persons are living outside the welfare camps in Trincomalee district.

“How can I have private life, because we are sharing our temporary shelter with my parents. Nothing is private for us, everything is public” says 18 years old Udayarani Tharmarasa, who got married and has a ten month old son. She lives at the Alles garden welfare camp.

“I do not earn a living now, because I am a farmer, and I need a land to cultivate. My land is in Kuchchaveli, and it is occupied by the Sri Lankan armed forces and they are refusing to leave. I am too old to fight back, I want to go back to my land, and die there. But I do not know, whether my dream will become true or not”, says 66 years old Murugesu Kandiah, who was displaced from Pankulam.

There are 150 families, which were displaced from Kuchchaveli in Trincomalee district living in the Alles garden welfare camp. The fishermen from this area used to earn Sri Lankan Rupees 10,000/= as their average daily income, but now they hardly earn Sri Lankan rupees 500/= daily.

“If the Sri Lankan Navy soldiers see us , while we are out in the sea fishing, we have to give the catch to them. And they do not pay, so we have to really work hard to earn our daily income” says 49 years old fisherman Konnamalai Tharmarasa, who was also displaced from Kuchchcaveli in Trincomalee district.

The people face numerous problems daily in these areas. 60,000 people had been killed due to the ethnic conflict. Although we are enjoying three years of temporary peace in Sri Lanka, refugees in the welfare camps and who are returning from India are undergoing several hardships.

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