ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 11 , 2007
Vol. 41 - No 41

The distant wail of the displaced

Some have been on the move for over 20 years, others have fled their homes more recently with the ongoing confrontations in the east. Defined as IDPs they live huddled in tents and their one cry is, ‘When can we go home?’

By Neomi Kodikara

Everywhere, men and women are gathered in knots, huddled in groups, in front of their dusty tents, under trees, even in the middle of streets, talking to each other, trying to present a cheerful appearance. Though they try not to show it, they are gripped by panic, uncertainty and fear.

When you go to a camp, crowds form around you. The throng of people grows greater and greater, the heat of close-packed bodies, scorching sun and dust rising from the arid earth suffocating. First they do not speak, just watch you. Often, it is an old man's treble voice that breaks the silence - telling their everyday woes, arduous ordeals to escape the fighting. Sordid tales of suffering and untold hardships begin to unfold.

Voga cooking a different meal

People travelled on foot through jungle routes, and on rafts and boats through lagoon and sea, crossed swollen rivers running through crossfire, to escape renewed fighting between the government forces and LTTE rebels in Vakarai on Sri Lanka's eastern coast. The young, the old, the sick and pregnant mothers made this gruelling journey, leaving their homes for the unknown `refugee' camps. More than 75,000 people, who have endured months of fighting, starvation and sickness, are concentrated in some 50 camps in the Batticaloa district.

Talking to women in the camp is heart-rending. Everyone has a story, and every story is equally shocking and sorrowful. "At first we did not want to flee, leaving behind our hard-earned belongings. Everyday shelling and air strikes made people frightened, and when eight of our neighbours died, we decided to move," says N. Manjuladevi. She came in mid December, with her family and her seven-day old baby. "It is almost two months now in the camp," she winces. At one point, after crossing a lagoon, they had to walk through jungles for two days before reaching government-controlled areas.

"We couldn't stay at home because of the shelling," says Pathipulla (28), sitting in the long, low hut with a roof of tarpaulin donated by the UN in Manmunai. "We travelled by river and through the jungle for three days before we finally got here," says Pathipulla, a mother of five. Her fisherman husband is not here now, "He went to a nearby village, looking for some work." However finding some work as a labourer is not an easy task; villagers are reluctant to trust them with work. Besides, a villager from Vakarai to move around freely in thick military-present Batticaloa is too risky.


A first baby is an incomparable joy for any parent. No doubt it is the same for 20-year-old Jevarani who lives in an IDP camp in Manmunai, but her mind laden with many worries seems to have lessened the joy of the arrival of her little daughter, just the day before. Jevarani had walked from Vakarai three days continuously through jungle terrain. There are seven others cramped in this low-roof tent. Heat is fierce inside. Water and sanitation facilities are only basic, and families cannot cook yet for themselves.

Vakarai IDPs at the Mamangam camp

Most families travelled with just the clothes on their backs and perhaps one bag filled with few things they could get their hands on. Ahilandeshwari (33) describes her journey to displacement. She says the problems in Muttur started in late April. Some families in the town took shelter in a temple for about three months. As the fighting escalated, they moved southwards – to Vakarai – before they were forced to move again.

While many IDPs are housed in camps, others have approached relatives and friends. Not all the displaced are lucky enough to have a host family in the local community. Most IDPs are living in open areas, where rows of tents stretch into the distance. Men and women, who do not know each other, are forced to live in the same hut, with scant privacy for women. It is hard to imagine the psychological impact of living in a tent, scorching during the day and shivering in the night. Some camps have few common toilets but sometimes it is open air toilets in the bushes that they have to use.

Inadequate support

The influx of displaced people puts pressure on authorities to cope with the demands of shelter, food and sanitation. Humanitarian agencies are stepping in to try to help families meet basic needs but the crisis precipitated quickly and support is slow.

Another pressing issue is children's education. Some local schools have offered to take pupils in a basic school with a few trees for shade. In some sites, there is also a sense of frustration among the displaced people that aid efforts have not addressed the full range of needs that exist.

There is uncertainty and fear about returning home. In addition they have no idea if their homes are safe or destroyed. "We like to go back home, but only after international organizations can assure us of security," says Kandaiah Nadarasa (55), a farmer from Vakarai.

Many anticipate that it will be months before they can even think about moving back home, and many are still shaken by the violence that caused them to flee their homes.

They all are citizens of this country who have the right to live free from fear. These families have names, identities and aspirations for their children. They are not simply 'beneficiaries' or 'the displaced'.

To them, peace and the promises a ‘political solution’ offered seem like a distant memory. As one resident noted nostalgically, "If the warring parties at least respect the ceasefire…" This is the most they could hope for.

As you bid them goodbye, their pale set faces plead with a mute eloquence that is louder than wailing. "Give us a normal life."

OVER and OVER again

By N.Dilshath Banu

The smell of cooking wafts across 55 thick white fabric tents huddled side by side in Mamangam, Batticaloa town, a temporary resettlement village for the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) of Vakarai. Soon the children rush to their tents and wait impatiently with their plates, in the scorching sun.

Forty-eight-year-old V.Yoga is cooking beans on a brick stove in the little space allocated for this purpose in the tent. “We are provided with cooked rice but with only one curry and sometimes we get the same food for many days. So some of us who can afford it try to make a few different dishes. Back at home, every day I cooked whatever my children wanted,” she laments.

Yoga is one of those displaced from the Trincomalee district. On the move since last August, initially she and her family moved southwards to Vakarai, in search of a peaceful life; but with artillery attacks continuing, there was a mass exodus further southwards towards the Batticaloa town.

For two months now Yoga and other IDPs have been settled in this temporary shelter, like the hundreds of displaced people living in the 50 makeshift camps that have sprung up in Batticaloa in the wake of intense fighting between the security forces and the LTTE. They are provided with food and the children have been sent to the nearby schools. But going back to school is not as easy as it seems, says 42 year old mother of two Mrs. Thanganayagam, who feels that although children are back in school they are not in the proper frame of mind to study like before.

Mrs. Thanganayagam worried about her
children’s schooling

These are the stories of people who have not only been displaced several times in their lifetime but whose lives have no semblance of normalcy. They have lived through days and nights of tension and trauma, seeing their loved ones die in artillery and mortar attacks. Home is now shabby “temporary tents” with meagre facilities where privacy and a sense of belonging are non-existent.

Nadarasa, 34, who was once a land-owning farmer in his village walks aimlessly around the camp. “For 21 years of my life, I have been displaced. We had large acres of paddy land with many tractors. We lived a good life,” he says.

Once the war broke out in the early days, Nadarasa moved northwards to the Wanni. During the ceasefire, he came back to Trincomalee and started paddy cultivation with good yields. But once the situation worsened, he locked his tractors and other valuable equipment inside his home and left.

“Thundering shells started to fall and it was a miracle that we survived. Some say our village has been looted. Others say it has been destroyed and there’s no trace of civilization in the area that we once lived. I don’t have any job here and am yearning to go back to my village. But this will only be once we are assured that we will not be displaced once again,” says Nadarasa.

A few kilometres from Batticaloa town in Vedar Kudiyiruppu, in another resettlement village for Vakarai IDPs, 55-year-old Sempahakudy Sapapathy wearing a crumpled saree has started to cook dinner, even though it’s just 5.30 in the evening while children bathe at the only tube-well where the waste water flows from a nearby pit.

The day ends early in Vedar Kudiyiruppu as there is no supply of electricity to individual camps. The use of candles is prohibited after a child was killed and a camp destroyed by a fire.

“We are getting food, but sometimes we have to eat the same food for several days with no variety. The adults don’t have clothes to wear apart from the few they fled with. Women especially face sanitation problems. I have only this saree and another,” she mourns.

Yoganathan Ketheeswari, 24 years, has finished cooking and is taking her four kids to have a bath. “Thanks to the authorities, we have no worries about food but we do not have any way of earning some money to buy what we want,” says Ketheeswari with regret.

Batticaloa GA S. Arumainayagam, however, is hopeful that the Vakarai IDPs can be resettled within a few weeks.

“The building of basic infrastructure facilities like roads is in progress. The main electricity lines are there and once people are resettled, we’ll do the needful to give electricity for individual houses. However, mine clearance is still underway in Vakarai,” he said.

While the resettlement process in Vakarai is going on, there are still 50 temporary camps in Batticaloa District. Mr. Arumainayagum says that the needs of those IDPs are overseen by the relevant authorities.

But those who are displaced many times now need peace and an assurance that they will not be displaced once again from their villages, if they get the chance to go back.

“Everyone needs peace and it is peace which will bring a permanent solution to the problem,” the GA says.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.