How A Village Dies:
The Last Man Left Alive In Ponnaveli
Ponnaveli village has a population of one. Villagers say they left after the war because of a lack of state services. Rumour has it, the Sri Lankan military are also to blame.
Local man Rasanayagam Aiya is the only inhabitant of the north eastern Sri Lankan village of Ponnaveli. “Many of us lived here. But everyone has gone now,” says the elderly man, wearing a partially buttoned up shirt over his sarong. “I am the only one left now,” he says sadly, with a trace of yearning.
A long time ago Ponnaveli was a thriving town, home to a ruling elite from the Tamil Pallava dynasty, which ruled parts of southern India between the 6th and 9th centuries. Other villagers, since moved away, say the pier in the village is evidence of this. A Pallavan commander who docked here gave his own name, Puliyan, to the dock; it is thought that the village may have been around since 1505.
However this century Ponnaveli is empty and Aiya is the only human relic left here. There are other humans around here of course. But some would say they don’t belong. After the Sri Lankan civil war ended, the Sri Lankan army and navy set up camps here. The army based itself in the village hall seven years ago and the navy has located a camp in nearby Kiranchi.
Whenever the sailors pass by they enquire after Aiya’s health and sometimes they even offer him food. But he refuses them politely.
The Sri Lankan military is not necessarily appreciated by Aiya. Before and during the war there were other villagers here – local authority statistics say there were around 37 families. After the war, around 300,000 people in this area ended up in detention camps, which later became displaced person’s camps. The people from Ponnaveli were among them. Eventually around 20 families were able to return to the area. But within three months, the villagers had started leaving again.
Today there are a number of original Ponnaveli families living a few kilometres away in Veravil. The rest of the families who left have gone to other nearby villages such as Murasumoddai, Vaddakachchi and Poonakary.
The main reason people left the village was a lack of basic services.
“Drinking water was a problem,” says one former villager. “The Tamil Tigers used to bring water in tankers. But when we returned, there were no such arrangement. There was no bus service either. The children couldn’t go to school. So, one by one families started to leave.”
The village school only catered to the children up to 12 years old. To study further the children had to travel to nearby Veravil which is four kilometres away. Parents worried about their teenage daughters having to walk past the naval camp in their way to school. In fact anybody who needed to buy things in a better equipped and serviced town had to travel kilometres through empty jungle and bush. And straight after the war, it was actually very dangerous to be caught out travelling around alone like this. Random arrests and kidnappings were common.
Just quietly, the villagers also mention the navy camp near their former homes. They don’t want to say too much about it publicly – it is dangerous to do so, they believe. But the army and navy also played a role in their decision to leave the area.
“If the government were to help us with housing, then we could return,” suggests Kathirgamanathan Thushayini, the current chairperson of the Ponnaveli Women’s Association, which operates out of Veravil; because the Association is not located in Ponnaveli any more, unlike other women’s associations in Sri Lanka, it has a hard time accessing any government aid. “But along with housing, we would also need transport services, water and school facilities.”
In fact, visiting the empty village there are still several stone houses standing, clear signs of an earlier prosperity. One imagines if the former owners of these kinds of homes do not wish to return then other less wealthy villagers are even less likely to wish to go back.
Meanwhile the last man left in Ponnaveli, Aiya spends his days in his hut, with corrugated iron for a roof and coconut leaves for walls. He doesn’t receive any government aid and he says that the cows he used to milk died during the last monsoon season. And he is not just angry at the armed forces here, he is also annoyed that his fellow villagers left town.
Aiya still retains a great fondness for his village and as he walks about the empty town, he ruefully recalls the school when it was full of children and other events, such as the time he helped the victim of a stabbing get to hospital.
Today his eyes are fixed on the past and on the ancient, dusty road leading out of Ponnaveli. “They will come back some day,” he says sadly.