Trust In Govt:
Sri Lanka’s Displaced Sick Of Waiting For Land, But Still Have Faith
The displaced people in the north helped elect a progressive, new government. Though they are impatient, they still have faith that promises on land will be fulfilled.
“We have suffered since the day we were born,” Thanabalasingham Wijayaraja says angrily. “Why were we even born? This is the 61st time I have spoken to someone from the media but we are still in the same place as we always were.”
This 29-year-old is no movie star or politician, speaking to journalists constantly. He is simply a young man living in a camp for displaced Sri Lankans in Valikamam, in the Jaffna district, northern Sri Lanka.
Like many others here, Wijayaraja’s story is a sad one. His father disappeared during a fishing trip when he was three. He is missing, presumed dead, which led his mother to come to the camp in 1990 with Wijayaraja and his two siblings.
Having lived here for 26 years, the inhabitants of the camp are now heading into their third generation – families have been living in the same tin shacks for over two decades, shacks that heat up unbearably around noon every day.
“Security forces took over our lands,” Wijayaraja explains. “The government promised to give us back those lands. But we are still in this hell. We should be allowed to go back to our village. At least there we would fish and cultivate the land and live properly. That is all we are asking for.”
It is because of the new regime that we have hope. If they release our lands, we will vote for them again, any day and every day.
The family’s story is not the only one. Around 6,700 acres of land in Jaffna are occupied by the Sri Lankan security forces under the system of high security zones, or HSZ.
Some of the land classified as a high security zone was formerly privately owned and some of it was public property. This includes a number of schools and places of worship.
Today there are 43 different camps for displaced people in Valikamam North. Most of the land belonging to the inhabitants of the camps is in the Palali and Mailati areas. And most of the land claimed by security forces in these areas have been co-opted for an army camp and for an airport. Three major roads have also been closed as a result of the HSZ, making traveling around difficult.
During his election campaigning, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, promised that he would return the Palali lands back to their original owners. But since then there’s been no mention of the land in Palali.
It is true that some land in Jaffna has been returned, including land in Tellippalai and Kopay earlier in 2016. However, the families that did get their land back are still dealing with a number of formidable challenges.
There has been United Nations funding given for the building of new houses and some families have moved back onto the land. For example, there are now ten families living in Wardhanavila village.
“We lived at Urumpirai camp for a long time,” says Nagendran Nesam, 52, who recently returned to the village after leaving it in 1990 and spending time in a number of displaced camps. “It was actually sad to say goodbye to that place. And the forest has really taken over since we left here.”
Some of the land in this village has been fenced off even though nobody is living there. That is because the families who returned to the land have found that it is impossible to live there. There are no utilities – water or electricity – and there’s no way for them to make a living here.
“The land we used to cultivate is still under military control,” Nesam explains. “We grew vegetables here before we left the area. Even if we had the land though, we still wouldn’t have water or power.”
The Sri Lankan government says it is doing its best to improve the situation. The Minister of Prisons Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs, D. M. Swaminathan, has said that there are a number of projects underway that should help.
Money has been set aside both to build and to renovate houses in the areas in question and Swaminathan has also said that the Prime Minister is in more talks with the Ministry of Defence to further release land in the high security zones.
In October 2015, the Sri Lankan government also assured the United Nations that it was in the process of giving back land taken for military reasons. And judging by the words of those still at the displaced camps, they still have faith in the current government.
“During the previous regime, we had to beg,” the young man, Wijayaraja, based at Valikamam, says. “It is because of the new regime that we have hope. If they release our lands, we will vote for him any day and every day.”