‘Cries from Puttalam’
For those familiar with the fairytales of the Grimm Brothers, the story of the young girl who equals her love for her father to her love for salt is no doubt a resounding one. Banished from her home by a wounded father who assumes her love for him to be trivial, she later gains grace when he realises the true depth of her love for him.
However, for the Muslim refugees of Puttalam, life is no fairytale. The situation is certainly grim, and the taste of salt is now bitter.
For these Muslims, who once led peaceful and productive lives in the north of the country, their lives were shattered when they were ordered to leave their homes in just two hours â€“ or face dire consequences. Leaving everything they possessed behind them, they fled with their families, hoping no doubt to return when things calmed down.
Little did they know that their lives, which had turned topsyâ€“turvy in the blink of an eye, would remain so and in fact only worsen, for the next two decades.
Numbering 30,000 when they first arrived in Puttalam at what were to be temporary camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), there are now 130,000 living in 136 such camps spread across areas, such as Mundalam, Vanathavillu, and Arachchikattu. The increase in the number of IDPs is not surprising when one considers that many IDPs have married and raised families in the space of the 17 years they have spent in the camps, waiting for an end which is not in sight.
Adding to the misery of living in these camps in overcrowded and extremely unhygienic conditions is their very location. The camps where the IDPs are sheltered are, in fact, abandoned salterns. There are active salt fields less than 200 metres away from these camps. Salterns are located in extremely hot areas where there is a scarcity of trees and, therefore, no relief from the sun beating down daily on the weary heads of the IDPs.
As far as living conditions go, apart from a few camps, the rest lack the most basic of facilities, causing immense hardship to the IDPs residing there. The majority of these camps have no sanitation, water and electricity, and no access to healthcare. Most families live in tents, which are prone to damage in extreme weather conditions.
One area has about 250 resident families comprising about 1000 individuals. They are compelled to share just two wells. Due to the high concentration of salt, the water is unfit for consumption. They also have to share just 10 dilapidated toilets, built around 10 years ago and not maintained since, which means each toilet has to be shared by 100 IDPs. During the rainy season, the entire area is flooded, often resembling a marsh, and toilets overflow, posing a serious health hazard.
Over and above this, IDPs from Jaffna and Kilinochchi complain that those from Vavuniya and Mannar are better looked after.
A difficult environment
Many of the refugees, like A. C. M. Fausia, however, have known no other life. While her parents hail from Kilinochchi, she was born in the IDP camp and is now studying for her A/L examination at the Puttalam Fathima Girls’ School.
â€œI was born in this camp in Puttalam, and have never been to either Jaffna or Kilinochchi. My parents often talk of better days, when they led comfortable lives in Kilinochchi, but this life here is all I know,” she says. Attending school and studying in such an environment is no mean task, but yet she perseveres in the hope that with education, the dream of a better life will be closer at hand.
Ramsan, who was born in Kilinochchi, is the father of two children and had arrived at the saltern camps about ten years ago. This is what he has to say:
â€œWhile in Kilinochchi, I ran a small restaurant and what I earned was quite adequate for my needs. The competition in Puttalam is intense and I now work as an employee in a restaurant here. It is difficult to feed my family with what I now earn. Water is very scarce in this camp, and there are hardly any toilet facilities here, but all our complaints have fallen on deaf ears.”
For A. C. M. Jinnah, who was born in Kilinochchi, but arrived at the camp when he was just 12 years old, every day brings dreams of what could have been. â€œMy father had paddy fields in Kilinochchi. He was a very successful farmer and we lived well. Now we are suffering at the Puttalam camp, and there is no end to our troubles,” he said. In addition, Jinnah is of the view that IDPs hailing from Mannar and Vavuniya are better looked after because they have Members of Parliament to represent them.
We have been trapped on all sides
â€œI am married with two children. I was 16 years old when I arrived in Puttalam. We lost everything due to the war. Before the war, we led a very comfortable life in Kilinochchi. My father was well off â€“ but when we came to Puttalam, my father could bring only the clothes on his back and his family. The LTTE chased us and looted our houses. Today we are suffering in Puttalam. We are hemmed in from all sides,” laments A. C. M. Bhani.
She says she, her husband and her children led a comfortable life with little or no problems. â€œNow we have lost all that because of the war. We have no one to turn to. There is no one to look after us or attend to our needs. We now live on an abandoned saltern in this unbearable heat. Our children succumb to various ailments due to the heat. We live here in the midst of immense problems. There have been several ceremonies to commemorate our arrival here over seventeen years ago â€“ and an opportunity to air our grievances â€“ but solutions are yet to be found.”
The plea of the IDPs is that relevant authorities provide them with at least the basic accommodation and facilities, while they are yet unable to return to their homes in view of the security situation. This way they can live their lives with at least a small degree of comfort.
Hiran Priyankara Jayasinghe
This submission is from Groundview, an independent publication by CHA on humanitarian issues and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka.