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As Tamil refugees resettle, their well-being could determine Sri Lanka’s

Almost 200,000 Tamils have left Sri Lanka’s postwar refugee camps – some for tin-roof shelters or relatives' homes. Their resettlement is seen as key to national reconciliation after decades of war against Tamil rebels ended last May.

By Correspondent / February 2, 2010

A Sri Lankan man holds a poster of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as others serve a local delicacy to celebrate his victory, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday. Riding high on his battlefield victory against the Tamil Tiger rebels and his landslide re-election, Rajapaksa appears under little pressure to tackle the deep ethnic tensions that fueled a generation of conflict here.

Eranga Jayawardena / AP

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Tunukai, Sri Lanka

Behind a barbed-wire fence, the vegetable garden is a sea of weeds. Stumps mark the spot of a coconut grove. Pubanesary Shanthakumaran’s yard has definitely seen better days.

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After government troops overran her rebel-held village in 2008, she fled with her husband and three children, then ended up in a refugee camp. In October, Ms. Shanthakumaran’s family was allowed to return home. They were given $25, dry rations, and a stack of tin sheets to build a temporary shelter in their fallow yard, next to a hardy mango tree. Finally, they were home.

“I was very happy to see that my land was still here, even if there’s nothing left of my old house,” she says.

It’s a journey that many other war refugees are starting to make. In the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s victory last May over the Tamil Tigers in their northern redoubt, vast refugee camps swelled with more than 280,000 survivors, left in limbo by a government intent on wiping out any pockets of resistance after 26 years of war. Some Tamils feared indefinite detention.

But a shift in the political wind spurred a push to send them home, and some camps began to empty out almost as quickly as they filled up. Now some 100,000 refugees remain, to the relief of international aid agencies running low on emergency funds. The fate of these people, and of returnees trying to rebuild their lives, may hold the key to a lasting peace in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated north.

Political pressure sends refugees home

In January, the resettlement of internally displaced people (IDP) paused for a presidential election won easily last week by the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa. That over, officials say the program will resume as more war zones are cleared of mines and public services are restored.

The US and other allies have been urging Sri Lanka to open up the camps, which are largely funded by foreign donors such as Britain, Japan, and the European Union.

But Western diplomats say that the desire to win an election, more than international pressure, tipped Rajapaksa’s hand to start sending Tamils back home in October. The president’s unexpected challenger, former Army chief Sarath Fonseka, had begun to win Tamil votes with promises of reconciliation.

The program still faces hurdles in trying to resettle families in ordnance-strewn areas where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought their bloodiest battles.

Then there are widows and the elderly, and landless refugees, including those whose land has been zoned for military usage.

“Some people don’t have anywhere to go,” says Rajiva Wijesinha, an official in the Disaster Management Ministry.

Aid agencies estimate that at least 60,000 IDPs could be stuck in camps for months, if not years, unable to return home. Refugees can apply for passes to come and go from camps. Some agencies have already pulled out, as the IDP population falls and the response to Haiti takes priority.

Snack stands, hospitals, open amid ruins

A drive up the A9 road, which bisects the former LTTE territory known as the Vanni, shows both the challenges ahead and the resilience of a war-ravaged population. In the ruins of concrete houses, tents and tin roofs have sprouted, and cramped shops sell soap, fried snacks, and sugar. Land is being cleared for crops.

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