180 days after end of war, the much anticipated return of IDPs: An eyewitness account

Last week a group of us got very rare access to some of the resettled areas in Mannar and Killinochchi. I also visited the different zones in Manik Farm (used to be called Manikkam Pannai). As we get to Vavuniya something that strikes me was the number of vehicles (buses and lorries) moving about with IOM stickers. IOM is the only agency that is allowed to shuttle the IDPs from Manik Farm to either to Vavuniya Urban Council (UC) ground or to the resettlement areas or to yet another transit center for further screening.

We reached Vavuniya around 10.30pm on Saturday. It was raining heavily and we witnessed IDPs, who have been brought from Manik Farm to be sent to their homes, taking shelter in Vavuniya UC ground (a transitional centre) under the stadium roof. My Vavuniya colleague got excited every time he saw either Ceylon transport services buses with IOM stickers or some bundled up stuff or gunny bags on the road side. He was anxious to introduce us to newly released IDPs. But it was not easy for us to talk to any of them since they were heavily guarded by the military. We could only talk to the ones who were released sometime back and are living with their relatives (host families) in Vavuniya. I met about 13 released IDPs mostly women and they have all had at least one family member either killed during the war (or before) or have disappeared in various screening processes. Only two women were able to lodge complaints with ICRC. One woman had seen her sister (a former LTTE combatant) only once in Vavuniya Pambai Madhu rehabilitation centre. When she visited the centre a second time she was told that her sister had been transferred and the officer in charge there did not give her any details. Another woman’s husband was taken when she was in Zone 4 in Manik Farm. She is five months pregnant and has three kids. At the time of our meeting she wanted to move to her original home which is Vattakachchi (Killinochchi) but since she has come to live with her relations in Vavuniya on her own will, she fears that she will not be able to go back home through the government resettlement program that now considers only IDPs living in Manik Farm.

In Thunukkai (Killinochchi) one of the positive aspects I noticed was that people still have an erect house. Many returnees appreciated the fact that they have come back to their original homes from the barbed wire camp. However their freedom of movement is still in question. IDPs  living in Manik Farm are given special ID cards and their movement, even after the return, is carefully monitored.

IDPs under the trees in Aadampan

When we visited Thunukkai there were 1,200 families that have been resettled and they have been given Rs. 5,000 cash and dry ration for a few months. We were told that Rs. 20,000 would be deposited to their bank account by the divisional secretariat office. When we further probed the government assistance given to these returnees we were told that this relief of Rs. 25,000 comes through UNHCR rehabilitation program through resettlement ministry and the dry ration is provided by World Food Program through Divisional Secretariat. It is vital here to highlight that this Rs. 25,000 bench-mark of resettlement allowance was fixed in 2001 as the resettlement incentive by the North East Community Organization for Restoration Development (NECORD) program funded by Asian Development Bank to put up a temporary huts for returning IDPs when there was a little relaxation of war in the North. Despite inflation eight years later same amount was given to IDPs. From the information we gathered it is clear that all the direct assistance to the IDPs so far have come either from UN agencies or IOM. We were also told by Mannar NGOs that they are not allowed to do any resettlement and relief work until they get special approval from the Presidential Task Force. However we noticed that the local NGOs are undertaking relief work in Manik Farm.

IDPs we met in Zone 4, 6 and 7 said that they will not leave the camps unless they are taken to their original homes and that they have heard a lot about suffering of people who have opted to go and live with their relatives. I have visited Manik Farm twice before but this time I felt people approached us boldly despite being watched. I also noticed it was women who most often narrated their stories and they repeatedly told us that the only thing they want is to go back to their original homes and to not live in any transitional shelters. For them it is either Manik Farm or their homes. There were many complaints of inmates (mostly young men) being taken away for investigation and not returned back. A group of women wrote down the names of men who went missing and told us to check in the rehabilitation centres in Vavuniya. They also told us that there are 14 such centres in the vicinity. A local NGO representative told me not to take the list since we will get into trouble at the exit point of the camp. When I inquired about complaining the disappearance and arbitrary arrest cases to international agencies I was told that even ICRC did not have access to Manik Farm and the detention (rehabilitation) centres since July. (see note here).

A damaged school building closer to Adampan

On our entry to Mannar we experienced a unique security system that I have not seen in the past 12 years of my work in the north and east. All our national identity cards were taken at the police check point at the entrance of Mannar Island and a temporary pass (laminated ones!) were given to us. Apparently this is applicable only to non-residents of Mannar Island. The pass indicates the number of days one wants to stay in the Island. We were asked the address of our lodgings in Mannar and the reason for coming to the island. At the checkpoint we witnessed people trying to explain reason for their stay in Mannar Island and the incomprehension of the military. We witnessed a woman who had overstayed the stipulated days and was unable to obtain her ID card back. A colleague of mine had to intervene and sort out the problem. The officers present know few Tamil words. A woman was shouted at in Sinhala in front of us for some confusion regarding her pass, even though it transpired soon after that it was the officer’s mistake of issuing her the wrong pass.

A damaged Kovil on the Uyilaunkulum Road (north on Mannar mainland)

When we reached our contact in Mannar we were told none of the government officers would want to talk to us since there has been some recent incident that has created tension between the civil administrators and the military man in command. We were given a copy of a letter (dated 28th July 2009) sent by Mannar Government Agent (GA) to all the NGOs and INGOs including the UN. The summary of the letter is that any organisation that is involved in resettlement and development work in the North has to get approval from the Presidential Task Force (PTF), any ongoing programs of development and resettlement should be stopped with immediate effect, proper approval should be sought and the approval copy has to be sent to the GA with the programme plan and report.

We were told that there were some instances where this rule was not strictly adhered and the competent authority (the military commander in charge of resettlement in Mannar) had warned the government officers of favoring the NGOs and INGOs. This came as a major issue when we met with many local NGO representatives. They were puzzled and expressed a hopeless position of not being able to assist IDPs in desperate need of basic assistance. Even though they have the resources to help these returnees and IDPs living with relatives, they cannot. A pregnant woman walked into the church premises where we were having the meeting and told us “when we were in Manik Farm at least we got something to eat and now we are forced to starve here”. She asked us how long we thought that their relations can feed them and as to why no one is helping them. We spoke informally to some Southern-based organisations and UN staff members who had obtained PTF approval to work in Mannar with IDPs. They told us that there are no statistics on IDPs who are living with host families. As a consequence, they don’t know the whereabouts of these IDPs and are unable undertake any relief activities targeting them.

Near the Karukkakulum school

We also visited Musali (South of Mannar mainland) and Adamban (North of Mannar mainland) where resettlement has been taking place. In Musali 651 Tamil families and over 700 Muslim families have returned. We visited the villages of Veppenkulum, Pariya Pottkurny, Musali village and Manakkulum, Bandaraweli, Kulangkulum mostly inhabited by Muslims who have returned mainly from Puttalam. We saw people putting up 16×12 square feet temporary huts using the 15 tin sheets, some logs and a building toolkit provided by IOM. They have to cut tree branches and use the logs to erect these huts. Rs. 5000 and 5 bags of cement is given to lay the floor. We saw bags of cement in front of few huts. These huts don’t have any walls around and we noticed old cloths, palmyrah leaves and sarees being used to create some private space. Musali resettlement officially started in April 2009 and these IDPs have returned in July and August. They are still living in these open huts. Women complained that since they don’t have a toilet or private place to bathe, they have to go to the jungle in the night despite the fear of being harmed by snakes and elephants. The only solid concrete structure one could see is the new military barracks built in between these villages. Children have to walk many miles to get to school and we did not see any hospital in the vicinity. We were told that they have to go to Murungan hospital which is an hour’s drive from the resettlement villages we visited. A good road has been constructed for about 6km, but it stops suddenly. The road is terrible after this, so much so that we give up travelling in our three-wheeler and walk instead. Apparently the road was constructed when the first model resettlement was done in Saveriyarpuram on 30th April 2009. The Government’s official web site (http://www.priu.gov.lk/) claims 90% of the Musali population being resettled and Rs. 800 million being allocated.

On our way back to Mannar we saw a group of IDPs being screened in the Kallimodai camp (one of the first internment camps set up to detain fleeing Vanni Tamil youth from LTTE recruitment but other Vanni IDPs were also placed there by the authorities). We stopped at a nearby shop in Kallimodai and had an opportunity to talk to someone connected to the buses that were stationed opposite to Kallimodai camp. What we heard was appalling. We were told that there were two Tamil speaking persons in civilian clothes screening the people. We asked whether any of the IOM officers were present at the scene since the convoy of buses and lorries had IOM stickers. With a funny grin on his face the guy replied “No”. Latter we saw a young woman refusing to get on to the bus and others consoling her and helping her to get in.  The guy turned and told us “you know why IOM officers are not here!” When I narrated this story to a local NGO worker she said that IDPs have been screened at different points and they have got complaints that people are being abducted or detained at these points.

Adampan is yet another new resettlement area in the North of mainland Mannar. But unlike Thunukkai these places (South and North of mainland Mannar) have been not inhabited by people for a very long time and we hardly saw any inhabitable buildings. People were put in public buildings which too were surrounded by jungle and did not have proper roofing. Few of them were in tents and others were taking shelter under the trees (during our four day stay in Mannar there was heavy rain in the evenings). There were landmine sign along the Uyilankulum Road that took us to Adampan and we saw de-miners from MAG and SSD in action. We also saw children walking to Karukkakulum School, which had been renovated to a functional level.  Once again we saw IOM tin-sheets and building toolkits and returnees trying to erect their 16×12 huts. We saw many single women with infants on their hand and few kids running around. They looked lost as to what was happening around them. There was one mother who was standing on top of these piled up tin-sheets and trying to tie a knot onto the near by tree branch with a long piece of cloth to make a cradle for her baby so that she can venture into the jungle to gather some materials for her hut.

With many families not having their able men and women who have being either killed during the war (or before), or being forcibly taken and detained, return for these IDPs is not as pleasant as one would want to see, or usually believe. We also witnessed many families reduced to women, very young children and old people. Without any basic facilities (proper shelter, hospitals, transport, schools, drinking water, electricity and access to any form of livelihood activities) and basic right to freedom of movement, one has to wonder what it means to these IDPs to come back home.

[Editors note: Today, 18 November 2009, it is six months after the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Writing to Groundviews in June 2009, the former Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka noted that “the joint communiqué of Governments of Sri Lanka and India as well as that of the Government of Sri Lanka and the UN Secretary General commits us to so resettling the bulk of the IDPs within 180 days”.

Revealingly, no leading traditional / mainstream print and electronic media carried any story today on the plight of hundreds of thousands of IDPs still languishing in camps dotted across the North and East of Sri Lanka, or interrogated claims of resettlement.]

  • punitham

    ”I was told that even ICRC did have access to Manik Farm and the detention (rehabilitation) centres since July.”

    ”did have access” or did NOT have access?

    ????

  • tis-a-small-world

    This is a very informative and a timely article in a view point different to the governments. This gives an idea of whats happening in camps and newly resettled areas.
    With regards to ICRC access to rehabilitation camps I would like to highlight some points.
    Of recent the Rehabilitation Commissioner Daya Ratnayaka stated that there are around 17 rehabilitation centers housing 11,000 combatants. (http://www.dailynews.lk/2009/11/18/news16-1.asp) but does not state where these centers are located or their names, apart from the centers in Ambepussa, Welikanda and Tellipallai. ICRC have access to these three centers but not for all 17 centers. ICRC spokesperson Sarasi Wijeratna in a statement in September 2009 stated that the organization doesn’t have access to rehabilitation centers. http://www.dailymirror.lk/DM_BLOG/Sections frmNewsDetailView.aspx?ARTID=61182

  • AJ Perera

    Is there is any possibility of getting this and a sinhala translation published in any widely read newspapers in the country? Daily Mirror, Daily News?

  • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

    Response from author to punitham:

    “Yes, we meant to say even ICRC does NOT have access. We were told Thunukkai comes under Killinochchi district by the commander there but a friend told it belongs to Mullaitheevu district.”

  • punitham

    Groundviews,
    Thanks.
    Can you please make the change in your text?
    It still says:
    ”I was told that even ICRC did have access to Manik Farm and the detention (rehabilitation) centres since July.”

    There is a big difference if ICRC has access or NOT.

  • punitham

    AJ Perera’s comment.
    Ditto.

  • KK

    People shouldn’t expect thigs to be perfect at any time and when things are done in haste as demanded by international and community things are far far from satisfactory. God created a very imperfect word when he created the world in 7 days. So what can you expect of SL govt in 6 months after 30 years of destruction. Patience wins in the end.

  • Joe Ladislaus

    This is the fear I had all along, mentioning at least to the BTF when the world clamoured for the release of the IDP without the benefit of prior civil administration and infrastructure in place. But no one could expect the Sinhala dominated GoSL to do such a thing either, for it is their least concern after the premeditated carnage carried out with vengeance in retaliation, may be for the rising toll of their marauding men. This was their way of meting out collective punishment for defying their authority in the first place.

    They caved in and let the IDP go free from Vanni albeit some into other similar camps because of the pressure of losing the GSP +. Here again no one knows what is going on in these scattered military controlled camps.

  • jansee

    I can only express in one single phrase: SHAME ON THE GOVT OF SL

  • http://lankareviewed.blogspot.com Foodie

    I can add:

    Shame on the international community for forcing the GOSL to resettle the IdPs before the necessary infrastructure was in place
    Shame on the people who wanted the rushed resettlement and are now saying that the resettlement was too rushed

  • punitham

    Infrastructure (all areas of public service) as well as the social fabric have to start from scratch. Hence civil administration, ie. district secretariats(with liberal HELP from regional and central administration) will have to take over from military administration and make a long-term PLAN while emergency services are provided by aid agencies who must be allowed in to help the desolate IDPs ”released” from detention..

  • Idealist?

    Thank you GV for this information, which is totally inaccessible to us most of the time. I also heard that none of the UN or other agencies had access to the resettled areas in the Wanni?

    @ Foodie (and I’m sure there are plenty of others who share his/her view of ‘it’s all the fault of the international community’)… there are plenty of aid agencies and the international community willing and ready to provide assistance if the govt. is willing to be transparent and allow them to assist. Why isn’t the ICRC given access? And other agencies too?

  • Joe Ladislaus

    KK I beg to differ. If you believe in God ,then he created everything that you could touch,see,feel,taste, hear, physics, chemistry, magnetism, the lot; except some discovered them and put their name to it as , Newton’s Law., Archimedes Principle etc, out of Nothing and saying ‘it is very good’. Who made it imperfect? you and me.
    If my car has some problems I would not consult a cookery book rather I would a car manufacturer’s manual. Similarly one has to consult Gods manual to guide us with a body and a mind that prompts occasioinaly to all kinds of bizarre activities that could destroy us
    I understand that God gave as a quick reference 10 rules; in contrast to the myriads of statutes that make world institutions buckle under its weight.
    and I am told if one does only adhere to the first two, the latter being love thy neighbour as yourself all these turmoil would have been averted.

  • jansee

    Fodie:

    In a joint communique, Sri Lanka promised to resettle the IDPs within 180 days. The pressure started piling-up when there were no visible resettlement and the various excuses the SL govt was giving in extending that period. Now, had it started to release or had it been an on-going exercise, I think SL may have received the benefit of doubt but the case was totally different – it was acting in a very recalcitrant way – that, I believe, irritated many. After all, it was the SL govt that bombed and flattened almost everything, including hospitals.

    The SL govt was so stubborn that it dismissed any attempts to question the delay in resettlement – until one matter surfaced and shook the foundation of the Rajapaksas seat – the former army general, incidentally cut from the same mould. With news rife of the general’s foray into politics and being lined-up to challenge his former boss, somehow the Rajapaksa regime had found the time and space to be over-generous, including being coy to the TNA, as it now dawns that MR, for all his thumping, may yet face the same fate that bedevilled Churchill and Truman. What do they say about this – is it “what goes around comes around”?

  • dayan john

    Thanks GV,

    Very informative indeed. I think the problem now is that help is available, both in terms of international and local agencies, and parts of the SL community, but the GOSL in their lingering fear (or guilt ?!) are not allowing this assistance to take place.
    Thanks,

  • Jack danielz

    It’s sad at what the politicians of SL have made of this Island!! Starting with the flawed thinking of SWRD, but most of this crap we need to attribute to JRJ – the cunning old-fox!

    As a Sinhalese, I’ve always opted to put ‘Sri Lankan’ wherever race was required to be filled in. The people over here are largely ok. It’s the silence of the intelligentsia that permits the likes of Silva’s and other such rotters to get away with keeping these crooked politico’s in power!

    The task at hand is to now salvage what is possible from the Rajapa[k]sa Bro’s incorporated – we are surely heading on the broad path to destruction…

    It’s a pity the main opposition doesn’t have a strong leader and an effective option on offer. Ranil with all of his shortcomings would possibly be the only man around with a strong enough vision. If we’d have not paid off hte ltte – he would be the president today.

  • Humanist

    Thank you, Groundviews, for this update of the continuing plight of those who have suffered through this war – this is hardly surprising, considering the approach and incompetence of the government.

    Jack, what do you expect the intelligentsia to do, after Lasantha W. was killed and Tissanaiyagam was jailed – except write to Groundviews? And the less we talk about the abilities of Ranil W. the better. He is both power hungry and unscrupulous – otherwise, why would he even consider bringing in a general to add to the sorry mess that the country is in.

    There are a few local NGOs who are trying to do their best under very trying conditions to help the IDPs. As far as I’m concerned, they need all our support.

  • niranjan

    Groundviews,

    Interesting article. It is elections that has made the Government go in for speedy resettlement. MR is now giving Rs 50,000 for resettled families. He needs their vote as much as he needs the southern vote.
    A political solution to the Tamil problem will not happen even after the election. The 13 amendment will never be implemented nor will the APRC recommendations.