Menik Farm camp, DFID - UK Department for International Development, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What ‘Release’ Means for Tamil Civilians

November 19, 2009 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

The following report has come from reliable and trusted sources, who, for reasons of their own safety and those of others, have asked to remain anonymous.

Last week a group of us got very rare access to some of the resettled areas in Mannar and Mullaitivu. I also visited the different zones in Menik Farm (used to be called Manikkam Pannai). As we get to Vavuniya something that strikes me was the number of vehicles (buses and lorries) moving about with IOM stickers. IOM is the only agency that is allowed to shuttle the IDPs from Menik Farm to either to Vavuniya Urban Council (UC) ground or to the resettlement areas or to yet another transit centre for further screening.

We reached Vavuniya around 10.30 pm on Saturday. It was raining heavily, and we witnessed IDPs, who have been brought from Menik Farm to be sent to their homes, taking shelter in Vavuniya UC ground (a transitional centre) under the stadium roof. My Vavuniya colleague got excited every time he saw either Ceylon transport services buses with IOM stickers or some bundled up stuff or gunny bags on the roadside. He was anxious to introduce us to newly released IDPs. But it was not easy for us to talk to any of them since they were heavily guarded by the military. We could only talk to the ones who were released sometime back and are living with their relatives (host families) in Vavuniya. I met about 13 released IDPs mostly women and they have all had at least one family member either killed during the war (or before) or have disappeared in various screening process. Only two women were able to lodge complaints with ICRC. One woman had seen her sister (a former LTTE combatant) only once in Vavuniya Pambai Madhu rehabilitation centre and when she visited the centre a second time, she was told that her sister had been transferred and the officer in charge there did not give her any details. Another women’s husband was taken when she was in Zone 04 in Menik Farm, and she is five months pregnant and has three kids. At the time of our meeting, she wanted to move to her original home which is Vattakachchi (Killinochchi) but since she has come to live with her relations in Vavuniya on her own will, she fears that she will not be able to go back home through the government resettlement program that now considers only IDPs living in Menik Farm.

In Thunukkai (Mullaitivu) one of the positive aspects I noticed was that people still have a standing house. Many returnees appreciated the fact that they have come back to their original homes from the barbed wire camp. However, their freedom of movement is still in question. IDPs living in Menik Farm are given special ID cards and their movement, even after the return, has been carefully monitored. When we visited Thunukkai there were 1,200 families that have been resettled and they have been given Rs. 5,000 cash and dry ration for a few months. We were told that Rs. 20,000 will be deposited to their bank account by the divisional secretariat office. When we further probed the government assistance given to these returnees, we were told that this relief of Rs. 25,000 comes through UNHCR rehabilitation program through resettlement ministry and the dry ration is provided by World Food Program through Divisional Secretariat. It is vital here to highlight that this Rs. 25,000 benchmark of resettlement allowance was fixed in 2001 as the resettlement incentive by the North-East Community Organization for Restoration Development (NECORD) program funded by Asian Development Bank to put up temporary huts for returning IDPs when there was a little relaxation of war in the north. Despite inflation eight years later same amount was given to IDPs. From the information we gathered it is clear that all the direct assistances to the IDPs so far have come either from UN agencies or IOM. We were also told by Mannar NGOs that they are not allowed to do any resettlement and relief work until they get special approval from the Presidential Task Force. However, we noticed that the local NGOs are undertaking relief work in Menik Farm.

IDPs, we met in Zones 4, 6 and 7 said that they will not leave the camps unless they are taken to their original homes and that they have heard a lot about sufferings of people who have opted to go and live with their relatives. I have visited Menik Farm twice before but this time I felt people approached us boldly irrespective of being watched. I also noticed it was women who most often narrated their stories and they repeatedly told us that the only thing they want is to go back to their original homes and do not want to live in any transitional shelters. For them it is either Menik Farm or their homes. There were many complaints of inmates (mostly young men) being taken away for investigation and not returned. A group of women wrote down the names of men who went missing and told us to check in the rehabilitation centres in Vavuniya. They also told us that there are 14 such centres in the vicinity. A local NGO representative told me not to take the list since we will get into trouble at the exit point of the camp. When I inquired about complaining the disappearance and arbitrary arrest cases to international agencies, I was told that even ICRC did not have access to Menik Farm and the detention (rehabilitation) centres since July.

On our entry to Mannar we experienced a unique security system that I have not seen in the decade of my work in the north and east. All our national identity cards were taken at the Navy check point at the entrance of Mannar Island and a temporary pass (laminated ones!) were given to us.

Apparently, this is applicable only to non-resident of Mannar Island and the pass indicates the number of days one wants to stay in the Island. We were asked the address of our stay there and the reason for coming to the island. At the check point we witnessed people trying to explain reason for their stay in Mannar Island and the military not understanding it properly. We witnessed a woman who overstayed and was unable obtained her ID card back due to her pass being connected to the number of days that was given by her at the time of entry. A colleague of mine had to intervene and sort out the problem. The officers knew few Tamil words but when it came to things that are not so routine, they could not understand the cases and the reasons. A woman was shouted at in Sinhala in front of us for not checking her pass promptly even though it was the officer’s mistake of issuing her the wrong pass.

When we reached our contact in Mannar we were told none of the government officers would want to talk to us since there has been some recent incident that has created tension between the civil administrators and the military man in command. We were given a copy of a letter (dated 28th July 2009) sent by Mannar Government Agent (GA) to all the NGOs and INGOs including the UN. The summery of the letter is that any organization that is involved in resettlement and development work in the north has to get approval from the Presidential Task Force (PTF), any ongoing programs of development and resettlement should be stopped with immediate effect, proper approval should be sought, and the approval copy has to be sent to the GA with the program plan and report. We were told that there were some instances where this rule was not strictly adhered and the competent authority (the military commander in charge of resettlement in Mannar) has warned the government officers of favouring the NGOs and INGOs. This came as a major issue when we met with many local NGO representatives, and they looked absolutely puzzled and expressed their hopeless position of not being able to assist IDPs who are in desperate need of basic assistance. Even though they have the resource to help these returnees and IDPs who are living with relatives, local NGOs are barred from helping them. A pregnant woman walked into the church premises where we were having the meeting and told us “When we were in Menik Farm at least we got something to eat and now we are forced to starve here”. She asked us how long we thought that their relations can feed them and why no one is helping them. We spoke informally to some south-based organizations and UN staff members who have obtained PTF approval to work in Mannar with IDPs. They told us that there is no statistics on IDPs who are living with host families therefore they don’t know the whereabouts of these IDPs and are unable undertake any relief activities targeting them. Local NGOs and religious bodies have some resources and much needed expertise while the IDPs and host families are approaching them. However, they are unable to undertake any visible or systematic steps to provide assistance yet to these neglected but released IDPs.

We also visited Musali (south of Mannar mainland) and Adamban (north of Mannr mainland) where resettlements have been taking place. In Musali 651 Tamil families and over 700 Muslim families have returned. We visited the villages of Veppenkulum, Pariya Pottkurny, Musali village and Manakkulum, Bandaraweli, Kulangkulum mostly inhabited by Muslims who have returned mainly from Puttalum. We saw people putting up 16×12 square feet temporary huts using the 15 tin sheets, some logs and a building toolkit provided by IOM. They have to cut tree branches and use the logs to erect these huts and then Rs. 5000 and 5 bags of cement will be given to lay the floor. We saw bags of cement in front of few huts. These huts don’t have any walls around and we noticed old cloths, palmyrah leaves and sarees being used to create some private space. Musali resettlement officially started in April 2009 and these IDPs have returned in July and August, and they are still living in these open huts. Women complained that since they don’t have a toilet or private place to bath, they have to go to the jungle in the night despite the fear of being harmed by snakes and elephants. The only solid concrete structure one could see is the new military barracks built in between these villages. Children have to walk many miles to get to school and we did not see any hospital in the vicinity. We were told that they have to go to Murungan hospital which is an hour drive from the resettlement villages we visited. A good road has been constructed for about 6km but, all of a sudden, it stops. Then the road gets bad to worse and muddy at the end we give up our three-wheeler and walked.

Apparently, the road was constructed when the first model resettlement was done in Saveriyarpuram on 30th April 2009. Government official web site (http://www.priu.gov.lk/) claims 90% of the Musali population being resettled and Rs. 800 million being allocated.

On our way back to Mannar we saw a group of IDPs being screened in the Kallimodai camp (one of the first internment camp that was set up to detain fleeing Vanni Tamil youth from LTTE recruitment, but other Vanni IDPs were also placed there by the authorities). We stopped at a nearby shop in Kallimodai and had an opportunity to talk to someone connected to the buses that were stationed opposite to Kallimodai camp. What we heard was appalling. We were told that there were two Tamil speaking persons in civilian clothes screening the people. We asked whether any of the IOM officers were present at the scene since the convoy of buses and lorries had IOM stickers. With a funny grin on his face the guy replied “No”. Latter we saw a young woman refusing to get on to the bus and others consoling her and helping her to get in. The guy turned and told us “You know why IOM officers are not here!” When I narrated this story to a local NGO worker, she said that IDPs have been screened at different points and they have got complaints that people are being abducted or detained at these points.

Adampan is yet another new resettlement area in the north of mainland Mannar. But unlike Thunukkai these places (south and north of mainland Mannar) have not been inhabited by people for a very long time and we hardly saw any inhabitable buildings. People were put in public buildings which too were surrounded by jungle and did not have proper roof. Few of them were in tents and others were taking shelter under the trees (during our four days stay in Mannar there was heavy rain in the evenings). There were landmine signs along the Uyilankulum Road that took us to Adampan and we saw de-miners from MAG and FSD in action. We also saw children walking to Karukkakulum School which has been renovated to a functional level. Once again, we saw IOM tin-sheets and building toolkits and returnees trying to erect their 16×12 huts. We saw many single women with infants on their hand and few kids running around. They looked lost as to what was happening around them. There was one mother who was standing on top of these piled up tin-sheets and trying to tie a knot onto the nearby tree branch with a long piece of cloth to make a cradle for her baby so that she can venture into the jungle to gather some materials for her hut. With many families not having their able men and women who have been either killed during the war (or before), or being forcibly taken and detained, return to these IDPs is not as pleasant as one would want to see. We also witnessed many families reduced to women, very young children, and old people. Without any basic facilities (proper shelter, hospitals, transport, schools, drinking water, electricity, and access to any form of livelihood activities) and basic right to freedom of movement, one has to wonder what it means to these IDPs to come back home.