Photo courtesy: Steve Chao | Al Jazeera
By Ranga Jayasuriya | Lakbima News
Name boards, one after the other stand welcoming the travellers to this less charted part of the Wanni: ‘Welcome to the area of Infantry Division,’ one greeted; ‘Area of the Artillery Brigade,’ another read. It appeared like we were in a military cantonment but in fact we were in the Wanni, dotted with camps.
The former war zone is rising from the ashes. The A35 Paranthan-Mullaitivu road is under construction and new buildings have come up next to the ruins of the war. Many more buildings are under construction. Children go to school, and newly opened shops which sell building material have a thriving business.
It seemed like a perfect take off for post war transformation except for one glitch–the all-encompassing presence of the military which appeared in no mood to let up its control.
The military is doubling up in the role of civil administration. This is in stark contrast to the standard way of the normalization process, in which the military gradually makes itself progressively redundant, allowing the civilian authorities to take control of civil administration.
The military is watching your every step
In the Vishwamadu junction, a young lieutenant ordered a street hawker who was selling clothes in the local bazaar to pack up and leave as the vendor did not have a permit from the local authorities to conduct business. That seemed acceptable (like in Colombo), except again, if only the orders had come from civilian authorities. But, for a man who sells his goods next to the ruins of shell wreaked buildings, such orders would be felt as sheer highhandedness. After all, there were only two hawkers in that part of the bazaar.
And the military is watching your every step. Having ordered the vendor to vacate the area, the young lieutenant turned to us. He spotted a couple of media personnel in our team taking pictures and videoing the town. When we identified ourselves as journalists, he asked for our media accreditation 11-1cards. Fair enough! But then went on to probe us checking on personal details.
“We will be reporting the details of people who visit our area to the Brigade Headquarters,” he said.
When journalists declined to give further details, he quizzed: “Why, would it be a problem to media freedom?” to which one scribe quipped that, “it would be more a problem with the overall democracy in the country than media freedom.” We left the scene, but on our return, a young man in civvies flagged our vehicle down at a military police checkpoint in Vishwamadu.
We were asked who took the pictures, referring to the previous incident and were told to get off the vehicle, at which point, a JVP MP, Ajith Kumara who was travelling with us fished out his Parliament ID and identified himself as a Member of Parliament. We were saved from further hassle.
But when visited the Manik farm IDP camp, even Ajith Kumara, who is a Member of the Parliament Consultative Committee on Rehabilitation, was barred from entering it.
The previous day he had been assured by the Minister of Rehabilitation that he could visit the camp without any hindrance. When he arrived at the gate of the Manik Farm camp, he was told he had to obtain permission from the Ministry of Defence to visit the camp.
In spite of a flurry of phone calls to the Minister of Rehabilitation, good-hearted Gunaratna Weerakoon, who in fact called the officer in charge of the camp on behalf of the JVP MP, parliamentarian Ajith Kumara was declined permission. After several hours at the gate of the Manik Farm, we returned disappointed.
This correspondent had visited the camp on several occasions, the first visit being made in the very first months when the camp was teeming with 250,000 Tamil civilians. During subsequent visits, I observed that the conditions in the camp have gradually improved and congestion reduced as many thousands were finally allowed to return to their villages. The two remaining camps at the once sprawling Manik Farm complex now house just around 6000 civilians.
However, the military centric ideology of the government, which dictated its conduct during the past two years, has not changed much. And such thinking had helped the government little in redeeming its image.
Why on earth should an elected parliamentarian, let along media personnel have to obtain clearance from the Ministry of Defence to visit a camp where fellow citizens of this country are held, is open to debate. The conduct of the government during the war and its handling of the IDPs have been questioned locally and internationally for understandable human rights concerns. Now when the government raises more barriers against outside scrutiny, it may not look good in the eyes of these outsiders.
Lalith Kumar who helped us as the translator in our discussions with Tamil families has been missing since Friday evening. He has left the residence of a friend in Jaffna on Friday evening to go to town. Since then, his whereabouts are not known and complaints have been lodged with the defence secretary and the Jaffna police, his colleagues said.
All is not lost, or is it?
Last Thursday was the third death anniversary of Govindan Thanchalai who died when a stray shell fell near him during the final phase of the war. His mother, Nagamma Govindan had utilized her meagre savings and a few thousand rupees borrowed from her neighbours to organize an almsgiving in order to invoke blessing on her dead son.
After Govindan was killed, the family fled their house in Darmapuram, Kilinochchi and moved further towards Vellamullivaikkal. At the bloody conclusion of the war, they were sent to Manik Farm where they languished for two years until they were allowed to return to their village in May this year. Now they live in a tarpaulin hut erected near the ruins of their old house. Nagamma’s youngest son attends Kilinocchi Roman Catholic School while her husband toils as a manual labourer everyday to make ends meet.
Nagamma lived all her life in the same land since she came to Darmapuram in 1958 with her late parents. After five decades, having lived and toiled in the land, and seen their house destroyed in the war, Nagamma and her husband are now struggling to prove their residency on their own land.
Those who returned to areas east of Kilinochchi are among the last batches of the IDPs to leave the Manik Farm. They were among the most traumatized during the war and continue to suffer even now.
Any plans for organized construction does not appear on the horizon.
Annapuram, (66) a frail Tamil woman had three of her children killed in the final months of the war. Languishing in a takaran (zinc) hut, she confides that she wishes that she too perished in the war.
Shanmugam Pechchalai, a strong willed grandmother is nursing the youngest girl child of her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom had perished in Mullivaikkal during the final months of the war.
However, young Siva Kumari Shiva Brinda suffers from post traumatic disorder; and she could not go to school. Pechchalai’s other three grandchildren are being raised at an orphanage in Vavuniya.
Pechchalai herself is nursing injuries sustained by a shell attack, but she is grateful to her Maker that she could survive to raise her granddaughter.
S. Thayabaran, the principal of Udayarkattu Maha Vidyalam says there are over 100 students who have lost either of their parents in the war. About 50 children have lost both their parents. Before the school was closed in 2008, and as people fled eastward to evade the approaching war, there had been 1400 students. Now, after its reopening in July this year, 1028 students have returned to school.
There are around 50-75 students who have been disabled during the war, says Thayabaran, who laments that he and his staff are unable to give special care to those children. He said none of the local or international agencies have come to help, and urges assistance for those children.
The family was entitled to food rations during the first six months after their resettlement, plus two payments of Rs.5000 and Rs.25,000, paid as a resettlement allowance by the government.
Now that the rations have ended, Nagamma is struggling to feed her family.
“There is hardly any work,” she says when asked about how much her husband could make for a living as a labourer.
Worst still, Nagamma fears the gloomy prospect of her family having to live in the tarpaulin tent for the rest of their lives. The title deed of their land had been destroyed during the war and the local authorities have announced that only those who have a valid deed would be entitled to a housing grant from the government.
© Lakbima News