Resettlement, No Thanks:
The Displaced Sri Lankans Who Prefer Former Enemies For Neighbours
In a camp for displaced Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, locals say they’d rather coexist happily in a Sinhala area than live in poverty, in resettlement villages.
Local man M. Mahendran has spent more than half of his life in a camp for displaced people. “I came here when I was 17,” he says. “Now I am 38. I got married here too. The war has ended,” concludes the father of three and resident of Poonthottam Refugee Camp, in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka. “But our suffering does not end.”
There are 93 other families also living in this camp and many have been here since the Sri Lankan civil war began. Most of the men work as casual labourers and nearly all of the families have been waiting for resettlement for a long time.
Conditions in Poonthottam camp are hellish, Mahendran says. Toilets are blocked, there is no running water and hardly any power, the houses all leak and are falling apart and disease-bearing mosquitos, snakes and the monsoon make the residents’ lives that much more difficult.
Resettlement should help the families progress, rather than force them backwards.
Even so, some of the locals – including Mahendran – say they would prefer to stay here rather than be resettled elsewhere.
At least here, the men can get work, they say. When they go to try and get government jobs they believe they are discriminated against. Surprisingly they don’t complain about the Sinhalese. Rather they feel that other Tamils prevent them from getting ahead. And locals like Mahendran believe this is because many of the people at Poonthottam are the descendants of Tamils who originally worked on local tea plantations, and therefore considered more lowly, manual labourers. So they are turned down for government jobs like bus driving.
This is why, when it comes to resettlement, it’s something of a “better the devil you know” situation.
The locals at the camp have employers who take them on for odd jobs and they know where to look for this kind of work. Their children go to the local school even though it is not the best.
The government plans to eventually move the families here to the Nedunkerni area where a charitable organization, the Gnanam Foundation, is building new homes, each with a plot of land, the district secretary, Rohana Pushpakumara, explains.
However, as Poonthottam community leader U. Welayudam points out, the land on offer is useless for cultivating anything. “The government doesn’t want to take responsibility for us,” Welayudam says, “which is why our problem has been given to the Gnanam Foundation. But we worry that if we go there, we will lose what little we have here. For example, there is no running water there – they say they are building a pipeline for drinking water, but that’s not enough. The government should give us other land to cultivate too,” Welayudam argues.
The families at Poonthottam don’t like the idea of moving so far away. “We know that once we leave, they won’t pay any attention to our requests for water or better land,” Welayudam adds. “When we leave here we won’t have any work and our children won’t have education.”
And then, Welayudam suggests an alternative. The families at the Poonthottam camp would rather settle somewhere like Mailankulama, where many Sinhalese people live. “It’s easier to live there,” Welayudam says. “We would be happy to coexist.”
Another camp local, J. Sashikala says that any resettlement should help the families here progress, rather than force them backwards.
“We have two children and they go to school in Vavuniya,” she says. “So we need a new school when we move. And my husband does masonry work. If he was to lose his potential for work, we would have a lot of problems.”