Karunai Seelan, a 51-year-old fisherman from Iranaitheevu village in Kilinochchi District of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, talks about the rich resources of his native land on April 23. Local villagers joined priests, nuns, civic activists and journalists in forming a flotilla of 40 boats as they head to Iranaitheevu Island to learn more. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)
Karunai Seelan powers up the engine on his rickety fishing boat and looks out to sea. As it guns into action, he looks at his motley crew of friends and neighbors and sets course for one of two tiny islands 12 nautical miles away.
While most of the world has never heard of Sri Lanka's Iranaitheevu twin islands, they could not hold greater significance for this 51-year-old fisherman and the displaced Tamil community to which he belongs.
The community has been displaced since 1992, after which the Navy moved in and barred them from accessing their traditional land, thus severing a crucial lifeline as it meant they were unable to fish in nearby waters.
Frustrated at having their petitions to the government ignored, the Tamils decided to take action on the morning of April 23 by assembling a flotilla of about 40 boats packed with villagers, priests, nuns and reporters.
Their goal: To reoccupy the island and show the government that it needed to address their call to let them return home.
As Seelan powered his small craft through the murky waters leading from the beach of Iranaimaathanagar — another island in Kilinochchi District — to the place he grew up, he looked at his seven companions and wondered what fate would befall them.
The displaced villagers sit in front of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Iranaitheevu on April 23, shortly after arriving by boat in a bid to reclaim their lost homeland. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)
This community of Tamil Catholics has called Iranaitheevu home for the last 200 years since their ancestors migrated there. But the 178 families were evicted in 1992 due to Sri Lanka's civil war, which ran from 1983-2009.
They were hoping to have their homeland returned to them after the war ended and a new government was elected in 2015.
But after 18 months of meetings with government officials including the Minister of Defense and the chief of the Navy, their frustration boiled over and they decided to launch an official protest on May 1, 2017, that culminated one year later.
The situation came to a head on April 23 — the 359th day of their protest — when the villagers held a special Mass at Iranaaimaatha Church in Iranaimathanagar before marshaling their ad-hoc fleet and setting sail for Iranaitheevu.
Iranaitheevu refers to two prominent islands: Periya Theevu (or Big Island) and Sinna Theevu (Small Island).
Armed with placards and banners, the village protesters and their newly formed entourage left the church and marched toward the beach to make the boat journey home.
Civic activists and reporters had traveled from the capital Colombo to cover the news — no one knew how the Navy or government would react — and lend them moral support.
As the flotilla hoisted white flags of peace and set sail into the unknown, Seelan reflected on his childhood and everything he had missed over the last quarter of a century since he was booted from his home.
"We have many things on our islands," said the chirpy but wistful fisherman. "We have Our Lady of the Rosary Church, stone houses, wells, a school, a hospital, a cooperative, a weaving center and a village council."
Most of the community relies on fishing to support itself.
"Mother Sea always feeds us and helps up to overcome difficulties," he said, using a term of endearment for the elements that is not uncommon among these deeply traditional and custom-bound villagers.
"We have many livestock there, especially cows and goats. There is also a bounty of crops to cultivate, for example coconuts and onions," he said.
"Whatever else we need comes from the sea, from sea cucumbers near the shore to the fish we catch in our nets."
The villagers laugh and joke as they complete the final leg of their journey home after disembarking at the beach. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)
The villagers said that after they became displaced they relocated to nearby Iranaimathaanagar.
Even though the Navy had seized control of their native island as part of the civil war effort, they were permitted to visit on occasion under certain restrictions, they said.
As the years rolled by the community became more dispersed, with some moving to islands further away.
When the war ended they returned to Iranaimathaanagar only to find a new roadblock in their quest to go home: the Navy had completely barred access to Iranaitheevu since 2007.
One of the problems they have faced since their eviction is having to venture further afield to fill their nets, which means higher overheads and less income due to ramped-up fuel costs.
"I have to spend 3,000 to 4,000 rupees [US$19-38] for every four trips out to sea, which is four times higher than when I lived on my [native] island," Seelan told ucannews.com.
"Back in those days we would use poles to propel our boats through the water so we didn't even need to turn the engines on, which meant higher profits," he said. "But that didn't really work after we left."
As soon as his boat beached on Iranaitheevu, its passengers jumped into the surf and formed a small Catholic caravan bound for Our Lady Of the Rosary Church to give thanks.
Mariya Jeyaseeli, 59, said she was thrilled to once more be able to step inside the hallowed confines of the church.
The mother of eight was jubilant as she offered praise and prayed for a successful outcome to their protest.
"This is my church," she said, beaming. "I plan on staying here from now on with my fellow villagers and not budging."
"We're not budging", says Mariya Jeyaseeli, 59, a mother of eight, shown standing in front of Our Lady of the Rosary Church on April 23. (Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)
After the prayers were held, she joined other women in sweeping away the dust and cobwebs and tidying away any litter that had accumulated on the church grounds.
"There were 178 families living here before and we still have our deeds to the land," she said.
That number has since grown to 400 families comprising a total of 1,500 people, she added.
"We don't mind if we have to share the island with the Navy or seek permission from the government but we deserve to be able to live on our own land," she said,
She said the Navy had only occupied a few select areas of the island and there was more than enough room to go around.
In her opinion at least, there was no reason why the two groups could not harmoniously coexist now that the threat of war had long receded.
"They only use five of the biggest houses here as well as the hospital, playground and cemetery," Jeyaseeli said.
Father Arul Selvan, the parish priest of Iranaimaatha Church, said those with land deeds plan to stay on the island until they receive an official response from the government while others will go back.
"All the villagers are fishing families. They should be allowed to fish here and cultivate the land, which is theirs by right," he said.
"Since 2007, they have only been allowed to come here on the first Friday of the Lent to carry out religious services," he added.
"I now have to write a letter to Navy officials seeking permission for them to come here to attend regular church services, after which they should return to the neighboring islands [until the matter of their residential status is resolved]."
He recalled one incident two years ago when Navy personnel effectively rode them out of town immediately after their Lent service had ended.
"They literally chased them away," he said.
"I remember the waters that day were extremely choppy and hazardous. The villagers asked the officers if they could wait until the waters calmed, which would have entailed an overnight stay, but the Navy refused," he added.
Father Selvin said that in the intervening months the Navy kept a watchful eye on the seas, using binoculars to monitor any activity so as to ensure the villagers didn't try to creep back in.
"Any time they saw a boat approaching, they immediately chased them away again," he said.
"Now we just have to wait and see what happens this time."