Arulanandan Amalaraj, 64, stands in front of his makeshift shelter in Valalai village on the Jaffna peninsula earlier this month (Photo by Quintus Colombage)
After nearly three decades of military occupation, the small coastal village of Valalai lay in ruins.
Bare foundations dot the roughly 95-hectare village in the Jaffna district of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, while crumbling walls peek through the jungle foliage.
Arulanandan Amalaraj has returned home after nearly two decades of displacement, during which he and his family scraped out a rough existence living with relatives, in rented rooms and in welfare centers in Jaffna.
The 64-year-old fisherman says he lost his ancestral home to shelling in the civil war years during a battle between government forces and soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) near an army base in neighboring Palaly.
“When we returned two weeks ago, I saw only hills of rubble among the huge jungle trees. The houses had no doors, roofs or windows. Sometimes only a single wall was left standing,” he told ucanews.com.
Amalaraj, his wife and four children joined hundreds of other families earlier this month in returning to their former homes.
President Maithripala Sirisena announced in March that Tamil families would be allowed to return to the area after nearly 25 years of military occupation.
Thousands more families from surrounding areas still wait on the government to issue similar orders so they too can return home.
But the homecoming is a mixed blessing, since there are few inhabitable homes left, almost no infrastructure and few livelihood options.
Amalaraj has built a temporary structure for his family out of tin sheets and tarpaulins, but feeding them and providing for daily needs remains a challenge.
“I will go fishing this afternoon. I need to buy school shoes for my third daughter. But it is in the hands of God since I have caught nothing for the last two days,” Amalaraj said.
The other returnees to Valalai face similar hardships. They have no radio, television, Internet, running water or electricity.
Anton Yoganathan, a farmer, and his wife recently returned to the land on which they were born and raised, and like other families found their former home in ruins.
“We found only the skeleton of the house,” he said.
Yoganathan, 67, and other farmers in Valalai have been working in recent weeks to rebuild their homes. As the work continues, they spend sleepless nights out of doors in the rainy season.
It is just Yoganathan and his wife now trying to rebuild their lives in a war-ravaged village.
“My elder son was killed in the war. The LTTE recruited soldiers during the conflict,” Yoganathan said, adding that his three other sons fled the country for Europe to escape the fighting.
A Tamil returnee mixes cement as he labors to rebuild his home on the Jaffna peninsula (Photo by Quintus Colombage)
Post-war land grab
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, amid allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity on the part of government soldiers and LTTE troops.
In the six years since the fighting ended, the government has imposed severe restrictions on Tamil communities.
Thousands of hectares in the north and east of the country were seized and repurposed as high security zones heavily occupied by government troops.
Though Tamil lands are now slowly being returned, thousands of families remain cut off from their former homes, while sign boards and high security gates mark the numerous military camps still operating in and around Jaffna.
Military convoys clog the pitted, unpaved village roads in the north, while residents must make do without public transportation.
Many of the homes abandoned during the war were converted into bunkers and command posts by the army. Some remain under military occupation.
Meanwhile, the absence of village schools force children to travel great distances to continue their education.
The slow return of land and the government’s failure to rebuild infrastructure have sparked public demonstrations over the last several years.
Selvarasa Arulanandan Sebamalai Amma, 60, says displaced Tamils have been forced to depend almost entirely on the military for even the most basic necessities.
“My husband is a laborer, but finding work has been difficult,” she said, adding that many of the area’s farmers have been forced to work fields now owned by the army, and that the most laborers can hope for is 10 to 15 days of work per month.
“It is a very difficult life.”
Amma says residents still live in fear of the soldiers.
“The military took our photographs and collected all the details about our family,” she said.
Sri Lankan military vehicles are common on the roads of the Jaffna peninsula (Photo by Quintus Colombage)
The return of ‘law and order’
Despite the criticisms and protests by Tamil villagers, Sri Lanka’s military insists that authorities have brought peace and stability to the north.
Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera, a military spokesperson, said that nearly 19,158 hectares of land formerly used as security zones has now been released to the original owners.
“Police maintain law and order in the former war-hit areas, and no single act of terror has been reported since the end of the war,” Jayaweera told ucanews.com.
“We maintain army camps throughout the country as part of our national security strategy. Former war zone areas are very peaceful,” he said.
But A Deleep, a Tamil rights activist, says that a lot of land has yet to be released to displaced Tamils.
“The army is still occupying the private homes and lands of Tamils, and expanding military camps in Palaly, Muhamalai, Ariyalai, Myliddy, Kadduvan, etc.,” Deleep told ucanews.com.
“The army has demolished religious sites, houses, schools and put up luxury resorts, golf courses, travel agencies, restaurants, cafes, and cultivated thousands of hectares to sell their [agricultural] products to displaced Tamils,” he said.
Little has been done to help former residents get back on their feet, Deleep said.
“Fishermen and farmers have not received fishing equipment or agricultural tools to access their farmlands.”
Many Tamil returnees are living in cobbled together shacks while they attempt to rebuild their war-damaged homes (Photo by Quintus Colombage)
Starting over with nothing
Civil rights activists are concerned that returnees attempting to rebuild their lives face a dangerous and uncertain future.
Ruki Fernando, an advocate for minority rights in Sri Lanka, says that no attempt to secure basic access to water, sanitation, education or healthcare was made in advance of the return of displaced families.
“There have been no arrangements made for even temporary shelter,” Fernando told ucanews.com.
“No arrangements have been made to compensate the owners for the decades that the military occupied their lands or for income lost due to the occupation,” Fernando said.
“The registration of returning civilians by the military is an alarming indicator of continuing militarization and surveillance … even after handing over the land,” Fernando said, adding that women live in fear at having to sleep in open huts.
“It is no condition for women and children to live, with absolutely no safety.”
A war-damaged home on the Jaffna peninsula (Photo by Quintus Colombage)
A long road to reconciliation
The return of displaced Tamil communities comes at a time of political transition in the tiny island nation.
President Sirisensa unseated long-serving head of state Mahinda Rajapaksa during January elections, promising reconciliation and transparent investigations into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war.
But an independent investigation by the United Nations has been put on hold pending early parliamentary elections in August.
More than 2,000 Tamil families have filed cases against the military for the return of their ancestral lands.
The US-based Oakland Institute conducted a survey between January 2014 and April of this year. It’s report claims that the military has expanded its land holdings in the north.
At least 160,000 Sri Lankan soldiers remain in the north — about one soldier for every six residents, the report notes.
Amalaraj says that he and his family are happy that the bombs and shelling have stopped, and that despite the hardships he is happy to once again occupy his family lands.
But with little work or resources to assist in rebuilding their lives, he fears for the future of his children.
“There will be no real peace or reconciliation unless the government treats all of its citizens on an equal footing and respects their civil rights.”