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.

Eranga Jayawardena / AP
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.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

But there is little work and only a trickle of cash to lubricate the local economy. Humanitarian workers say that livelihood schemes, a staple of postdisaster planning, are missing in the Vanni because authorities want to keep out prying eyes, amid international controversy over the camps and the fate of returnees. Tamil politicians have warned of a land grab by conquering military forces.

Mr. Wijesinha denies any such plan. He says 33 nongovernmental organizations were recently given approval to begin job-training and shelter programs in the Vanni. He argues that aid agencies must show results and shouldn’t try to usurp the role of the state in providing for Tamil people. “The first port of call [for returnees] should be the government,” he says.

Near Shanthakumaran’s unruly yard, an abandoned public hospital has sprung back to life. An open-sided building that still has its roof is being used as a makeshift female ward, waited on by a team of uniformed nurses. Three donated ambulances wait out front to pick up patients and transfer serious cases to the nearest town. Two babies have been delivered here since October.

The hospital once had 120 beds, before war swept through here, says the acting director, Amildaraja Thileeban. He is confident that it will eventually be rebuilt as part of postwar reconstruction. “We come here with hope. The doctors and the nurses, they all come with hope,” he says.

Free to leave, but where to go?

Further north, the town of Kilinochichi, the de facto LTTE capital, is still closed to returnees. To the east lies the coastal strip where thousands of Tamils died in the final stages of the war as Sri Lankan troops besieged the LTTE and artillery shells and aerial bombs fell “like rain,” say refugees.

Around 40,000 Tamils have moved back to the Vanni, mostly to areas like Tunukai that were seized earlier in the war, says Michele Cecere, an official for the International Organization for Migration, which provides shelter materials and transportation to returnees.

Another 70,000 have been returned to the East and to Jaffna, the northernmost province. In Jaffna, many IDPs find their land lies deep inside huge military buffer zones created after the LTTE was driven out in 1995, along with tens of thousands of displaced civilians.

In some cases, refugees who were displaced several times and built new lives in the Vanni opt to return to Jaffna as a quicker exit from the camps. “It’s where they lived once upon a time. It’s not always their last place of address,” says Mr. Cecere.

Home sweet makeshift-home

Shanthakumaran moved with her family to their two-acre plot of land in 1972. Her uncle had a house there, and she later lived in the other with her husband, a bus driver, and their kids. They owned a bus, a symbol of prosperity in a farming community.

Then came the 2008 military offensive against the LTTE. They piled into their bus to escape shelling. Next stop was a rented house in Kilinochichi, until it too fell to troops in January 2009. Finally, they were caught in heavy fighting in a village farther east, before soldiers overran the LTTE lines and herded the civilians off to the camps, where they stayed until October.

Like everyone here, she’s happy to be out of the crowded camps. For the first two months, it had been only Shanthakumaran and her children, as her husband had stayed behind in the war zone. That added greatly to her misery, on top of the stress of the squalid camp. "When there was shelling, he had to look after his mother. So we were alone," she says.

Her husband’s bus, the family’s main source of income, is long gone, so they rely on him finding casual work on a road crew and scraping together enough to supplement their food rations. Their makeshift tin-roof house is an oven by day, drafty by night.

Her relief of coming home is clouded by worries that peace may be transitory. “I’m afraid of the future, of what may happen,” she says, gazing out onto her yard.

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