A Journalist’s Story:
A Promise Made To The Displaced Of Northern Sri Lanka
A group of Sinhalese journalists visited a community of displaced Tamils in Mailadi. After a political discussion next to a military camp, the reporters made a solemn promise.
“Come. Come with me, let me show you my land,” she said, leading the way.
With her height, the efficient, quick way she walked and her dark saree, Dharmalingam Kasthuri reminded me of a teacher I once knew. Carrying our recording equipment, our group of journalists followed the 68-year-old woman obediently, as though we were her students. We were visiting the Mailadi area on Sri Lanka’s north eastern coast.
Everywhere there are signs of construction. Straight wooden posts, festooned with barbed wire, mark out new blocks of land. Every now and then we see a digger or some other large machine that has been used to clear hedges and dirt. We see farmers preparing land to plant onions. And as we walk, the wind carries the sweet scent of freshly dug dirt and new grass.
Give me my half-acre of land back. And I can start my life again, with my own two hands.
“Mailadi! Mailadi! Mailadi! Oh, this sweet smelling soil! Oh, the earth that never let us go hungry!”
The cry comes from an old man at the Needawan camp for internally displaced persons in Jaffna, who is beating his chest and smearing dust across his forehead. His name is Mariyaslingam, he is 70 years old and he says he only wants his land back. He tells us that in 1990 he and his people were forced to leave their lands because of the civil war. During the next 26 years, all they have dreamed of is to return home to those lands. Instead their former homes were turned into a high security zone by the Sri Lankan military. Mariyaslingam and his people cannot get close to their old homeland because of a barbed wire fence that surrounds the base. And we knew we were walking on land where a new world was emerging.
“What was here in the past?” I asked our guide, the “teacher”.
“Do not ask like that,” she replied, her face expressing what had been lost. “Ask what was not here. Beautiful large houses, our wells, the trees and fruits we cultivated, the animals we tended, our children who played in the compounds.”
Her voice trailed off. It seemed as though she was lost in her thoughts. But she kept walking and soon we stopped in front of a boundary line. A soldier at a guard post a few feet away from us, turned in the other direction. A military truck rode a newly prepared gravel road. Our guide stretched out her hand and pointed towards the truck beyond the barbed wire fence.
“That was my land. That was where my house was,” she said. “This fence was erected right by my old house.”
Kasthuri was 42 when her family left this area in 1990 because of the civil war. During the ensuing decades of displaced life, she lived in Vanni, Chavakachcheri, Chunnakam and Mallakam. She didn’t just lose her land and her home during this time. She lost two of her children in the civil war, in a bombing. She was shot in Mallakam in 1990 and lost one of her kidneys as a result. Thanks to hardships they had endured, her husband passed away ten years ago. Now only she and one of her sons is left. And the one lost thing that still plays on her mind today is her land, her half acre, her home under military occupation.
“The President came to Jaffna in January and told us that our lands would be returned to us within six months,” Kasthuri explains. “Six months have passed and we are still waiting near this fence. I have not received any compensation for what happened. But I don’t need any compensation. I am asking for only one thing. Give me my half-acre of land back. From there I can start my life again, with my own two hands. I will live until I am 100 to make this happen,” she exclaims.
For a while we didn’t know what to say. Then eventually we began to be surrounded by other people who lived here and the discussion turned political.
“Did nothing good happen with the change of government?” we asked the locals.
“We cannot say no,” one of the people around us answered. “If we had spoken like this in the past, we would cease to exist. And you wouldn’t be here either. At least now we can open our mouths and say something.”
Not everyone agreed. From behind, a young woman called out that this was not necessarily true and that problems could still come to those who spoke out, even now.
“But you have your own [Tamil] political representatives now,” we said. “Why can these issues not be resolved?”
The answers came thick and fast.
“Only the president or the prime minister can solve our problems.”
“When houses were destroyed, the President said the houses would be rebuilt and compensation would be given. But this has not happened.”
“For those of us who have suffered so much hardship, we have not received any compensation for the lands taken from us.”
“Are we not people of this country? Why are we being treated like this?”
“So you don’t have any faith in the government,” one of our group asked.
“No, that’s not how we think,” Kasthuri, our guide, told us. “It’s just that things haven’t happened in the time period that we were promised. But we do believe in him. We are just waiting until our land is released by him. And we have nothing against the military,” she added. “They are just doing their job. They will release our land when they are given the order to do so.”
The discussion went on but eventually we came to our final, and penultimate question for Kasthuri and the other people we had met here: How can we help? What can we do for you?
“Thank you for coming to visit us,” they said. “But do not bother telling the politicians about our problems. Tell the people who live in the south. If the people of the south hear about our suffering and if they demand a change from the government, the government will do as they ask,” Kasthuri said, filled with confidence about her fellow man.
“Of course. We will do that,” I answered automatically. I meant every word. But it was only some time later before I realized the gravity of that promise.