Lives Remain In Ruin Six Years After Sri Lanka Civil War

For 25 years, the Sri Lankan military waged war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, killing and displacing thousands of people. Though it ended in 2009, militarization remains and people haven't been able to reclaim lands.

Rebuilding a temple in Jaffna
Rebuilding a temple in Jaffna
Julien Bouissou

JAFFNA â€" Two meters separate Subnamanigaiyar Kugathasasanma from the past. Two meters of soil surrounded by barbed wire. Bare chested, his waist wrapped in a white sarong, he looks at the wrecked home he left in haste 25 years ago as if he were contemplating a memory. He hadn't returned to his bullet-riddled shack since 1990.

"We had to leave quickly to flee the fighting," he says pointing to his pruning knife on the other side of the barbed wire. "I left behind my land titles and some personal belongings that you can see over there."

In April, the Sri Lankan army released his plot of land and the old Hindu temple nearby where he worked as a priest. But his house stayed behind a fence. It is situated in a "high-security zone," protected by a soldier who types on his phone's keyboard nonchalantly.

When the clergyman returned for the first time four months ago, he didn't recognize anything. "It was a jungle," he says. "The ancient statues of the temple were gone, resold on the black market by soldiers." Day after day, he weeds, replants peppers and vegetables, slowly rebuilding his life.

"Without soil, life can't exist!" he exclaims, his eyes laughing. The temple will soon be renovated, he hopes, thanks to donations collected from the faithful. No one knows, though, how he will be able to welcome all of them, with such a fence, during religious festivals throughout the year. The barbed wire surrounding military camps in the north of the island is the last plague of a conflict that has lasted for 26 years and is not yet fully resolved.

Six years after the end of the civil war that pitted the Sri Lankan army against the Tamil Tiger rebels, killing nearly 10,000 people, thousands of displaced people are still waiting to reclaim their lands occupied by the army. This military presence weakens reconciliation between the Tamil, Hindu and Christian minorities and the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority.

According to an assessment by the U.S.-based Oakland Institute think tank, the northern province of Sri Lanka has nearly one soldier for every six civilians. Demilitarization in the north had been one of the key issues of legislative elections, which concluded Aug. 17 with the victory of a reformist coalition supporting Maithripala Sirisena, the president elected in January. Sirisena has promised to progressively return the lands, though he has offered no specifics.

Tin roofs and rice

Rather than withdrawing after the conflict ended, the army has settled in. Who would have thought that the tourist complex of Thalsevana, where families relax around a swimming pool, would be among the "high-security zones"? But to book one of the "luxury rooms," the phone number actually directs callers to the Ministry of Defense. The place is defined by strict rules, such as the obligation to remove sandals two meters from the swimming pool, no more no less. Those who go a bit too far away from the resort can see a man with a khaki uniform emerging, a crackling walkie-talkie fixed on his belt.

The only civilian working on the site is the hotel keeper, who has a difficult task: to train the soldiers to work in his sector. "They are highly disciplined, but we always need to be there to tell them what to do," he says. "They lack initiative." From the hotel's promenade, along the sea, there is an idyllic landscape. A cool wind blows on the azure sea. In the distance, a few houses loom on the horizon, and they too are occupied by the army. The tenants, evicted 30 years ago, were left to live a few kilometers away, in Mallakam, a gloomy slum made of tin houses and known by authorities as the "welfare camp."

Here, former fishermen do nothing but buy fish or collect wood to resell, by bike, in inland areas. In the afternoon, when it's too hot to stay inside the tin houses, a few women sit outside in front of a stall full of onions and beans to kill time and to potentially earn a few rupees.

"I've lost my land and my two boats," says one of the women, her teeth stained black by betel leaves. "I've lost my two legs because of a shell burst," adds the woman seated next to her in a wheelchair. "I've lost my husband and have found no trace of his death," another says. And they've received virtually no help, nothing beyond political candidates bringing them "tin roofs and rice before elections."

In Mallakam, life hangs on to these lost lands. Under a small shaking chapel, a statuette of Jesus wrapped in a garland of flowers is pampered, decorated and revered, as if only God could improve their lives after so much disappointment. "Their life conditions are inhumane,” says a Catholic priest in Jaffna. "How can you live in such crowded conditions? Many kill themselves."

The government here doesn't recognize displaced people as such. The previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed in September 2012 that all the displaced people could return to their lands. According to the Internally Displaced Monitoring Center, an independent organization, almost every resident who had fled the fighting in the last years of the war, in 2008 and 2009, returned home. "But the longtime displaced people had never regained their houses," the director says.

"Militarization is not limited to the very presence of soldiers," adds Ahilan Kadirgamar, member of a group working for economic democratization. "Until recently, the army was controlling the whole administration and keeps managing citizens' daily lives."

Government forces in Jaffna â€" Photo: Adam Jones

One NGO director says groups like his are regimented. "The administration gives us the list of displaced people and tells us what to do and when, with the UN Refugee Agency money," he says. The Sri Lankan government has not spent a single rupee to build houses for displaced Tamils. It barely gave each family 80 euros to clear away the debris of their former homes. Schools and religious buildings have to be rebuilt, wells filled during the war have to be reopened and hamlets still need to be connected to electricity.

Multiple discrimination

The army is suspicious of peace. The only museum it constructed was the War Museum, at the very place where Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was found dead in 2009. The Sri Lankan military's exploits are exhibited outside: homemade submarines filled with explosives that were used to conduct suicide attacks, or fishermen's boats transformed into warships, in front of which tourists take pictures.

At the Information Center, yellowing photos show soldiers helping civilians who fled during the war. The same soldiers who, according to a 2011 UN report, "bombed the population on a large scale in three curfew areas where the government had encouraged the civilians to take refuge." Tens of thousands of citizens died in the last months of the war.

Several military men discreetly stand guard behind the War Museum. "Tamil Tigers can come back at anytime, and this museum could be a prime target, especially as the wife of one of the Tamil Tiger leaders lives just a few kilometers away, so we prepare for an attack," says a confident soldier dressed in khaki shorts.

Tamil Tigers soldiers in Killinochi in 2004 â€" Photo: Ulflarsen/GFDL

For fear of the resurgence of the Tamil separatist cause, the previous regime used "soft power" to recapture the north of the island. "These last six years, the Sinhalisation process intensified with systematic efforts from the government to replace Tamil culture and history by monuments of victory, symbols of the Sinhalese hegemony," the Oakland Institute wrote in a June report entitled, "The Long Shadow of War." Buddhist temples were even constructed in Tamil villages where there are no faithful. Some Sinhalese were even encouraged to go settle in the north. Jaffna has now a district called "Sinhalese's voice" that residents call "the government's village."

On the outskirts of the district, a huge statue of Buddha, with his smile of beatitude, watches the trains of the new railway line inaugurated in 2013 A couple of saffron-robed monks recite prayers in front of a handful of worshippers while a military man, dressed in civilian clothing, is monitoring the comings and goings.

"We'd been living here for generations before we were driven out by Tamil Tigers," explains Wijet Dasa, an air conditioner repairer who has been living here since 2009. But out of 189 families who arrived in 2009, 130 had to leave. "There's nowhere to send our kids because all the schools teach in Tamil language and it's hard to find a job when we are Sinhalese," Dasa says. When he fled southward, he was perceived as a Tamil and suffered multiple kinds of discrimination.

Back in Jaffna, his Sinhalese identity prevents him from easily finding work, more evidence that peace and reconcilation in Sri Lanka remain elusive.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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