Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sri Lanka: returning home to nothing

By Olav A. Saltbones | Norwegian Red Cross

The physical scars left by the war in north Sri Lanka run as deep as the emotional ones. There are ruins where homes once stood, and 25 years of war have stopped development and destroyed livelihoods.

Ouvurasa Anuba, 32, is the mother of two young children. She lost her husband in the final weeks of the war between the army and the ‘Tamil Tigers’ (LTTE). She also lost her mother and father-in-law during the conflict. Her youngest child, Varmina, is two and a half – old enough to have memories of the war, but too young to understand it. At five, her older brother, Thanashi, understands that he lost his father to the

The conflict saw hundreds of thousands of Tamils flee the country – many of them to Norway – but a similar number fled to other parts of Sri Lanka. Now, they are returning home to rebuild what the war destroyed.

Ouvurasa and the children returned to their home in February this year. Her husband used to earn a living by selling goods at the local market. Now she doesn’t know what the family will live on as she is worried she won’t be able to find a job. For now, she is focusing on rebuilding the family home.

“My house was destroyed and there is only one wall left. I want to keep the one wall that is still standing, and use it as a part of the new house,” she says.

Ouvurasa is receiving support from the Red Cross to build the new house on the plot of the old house.

Loss of livelihood

On the other side of town, another family is also rebuilding their house.

S. Ranganathan and his family have so far rebuilt the foundation wall. Whilst the construction is ongoing, they are living in a makeshift shelter with a corrugated iron roof.

Ranganathan was badly injured in a bomb attack. He received first aid from the Red Cross, and fortunately they managed to save both his foot and his life. Sadly, he lost six members of his family in a bomb attack as he was fleeing to safety with his family. Some of his other relatives live in the house across the road where they have put up a memorial altar with a picture of the six dead family members.

His injuries prevent him from doing physical labour. He shows the scar that runs up his thigh.

“I am a farmer, but now I need help to till the land. I hope we never have to experience war again. I hope for peace and harmony around the world,” he says.

New homes desperately needed

The Red Cross estimates that more than a 100,000 new homes are needed in northern Sri Lanka, but there are not enough resources. It is expected that only a few hundred homes will be completed before the monsoon season starts in October.

“The internally displaced people, who are returning to their villages, are coming home to nothing. More than 300,000 people are in a desperate humanitarian situation,” says Børge Brende, Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross.

“When they come back to their villages, they must prove ownership of the house or land, and not everyone can do that. So they are given sheets of corrugated iron and they use whatever they can find – sticks, planks and bricks to try to build a house. In the meantime, they live in school buildings, public buildings or under tents and tarpaulins next to their destroyed houses,” explains Brende.

Working with the The Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and IFRC, the German Red Cross is also working to build new homes and repair damage to others.

“The need is huge. As many as perhaps over 100,000 homes must be built for those who are returning from other parts of Sri Lanka and from abroad. This is not a task either we or others can ignore,” says Brende.

“The Norwegian Red Cross made a major effort in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. We are about to complete that operation now, but we cannot leave Sri Lanka with the challenges the country still faces in the northern areas,” says Brende.

In recent months, several thousand people have been forced to flee again, either back to host families in other parts of the country, or to camps for internally displaced people.

“In the largest of them, Mannik Farm, where more than 280,000 people stayed at the peak, more than 40,000 people remain. Some of these have been forced back there because they have nothing to return to or rebuild in their original villages. Some have lost all their papers and documents of ownership. Some had nothing before they fled and they have nothing now. So we must help these people”, says Brende.

© International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies

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