Disaster Management, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Vavuniya

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.]