Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

SRI LANKA: The Long Road to Normalcy in War-Ravaged Zones

COLOMBO, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - Despite the recent accelerated return of tens of thousands of war-displaced civilians to their former villages in northern Sri Lanka and the impending relaxation of further restrictions, aid agencies say far more efforts are needed to help the civilian population regain normalcy lost to decades of conflict.

U.N. humanitarian head John Holmes: "The (resettlement) process is going to be a difficult one." Credit: U.N.

U.N. humanitarian head John Holmes: "The (resettlement) process is going to be a difficult one." Credit: U.N.

Faced with international criticism over the state of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the island state, the Sri Lankan government has accelerated the resettlement process in the last two months. Since October 108,000 IDPs have returned to their villages in the former conflict area in the country’s north, known as the Vanni, based on government data.

United Nations humanitarian head John Holmes, who visited the IDP centres and at least one resettlement area last week, said the number of IDPs remaining in welfare camps was around 135,000, down from almost 280,000 IDPs in the camps situated in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee immediately after the two-and-half-decade-old bloody civil conflict ended in May.

Sources who visited the resettlement areas earlier this month said that the situation of the returnees varied from area to area, depending on the intensity of the fighting. For instance, returnees to the Kilinochchi district in central Vanni were relatively more satisfied about their condition compared to those in the Mannar district to the west, where the returning IDPs complained of lack basic infrastructure, since the area was heavily damaged at the height of war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

“We also witnessed many families reduced to women, very young children and old people,” said a report compiled by a group of local civic workers who visited the areas. “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.”

The report, a copy of which was made available to IPS, also said that returning families were coping as best as they could.

“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 could venture into the jungle to gather some materials for her hut,” recounted the report.

“Women complained that since they don’t have a toilet or private place to bathe, they have to go to the jungle in the night despite the fear of being harmed by snakes and elephants,” said the report of a group of returnees in the Mannar district.

On returning to their villages, the IDPs receive 50,000 rupees (437 U.S. dollars) from the government and U.N. agencies. They also receive dry rations enough to tide them over for the next six months, along with roofing sheets, kitchen utensils and agricultural equipment, according to an official statement released by the government on Nov. 21.

Holmes, who was on his fifth visit to Sri Lanka since 2007, commended the recent accelerated resettlements. Yet he reiterated persisting U.N. concerns on the lack of consultation on the resettlement process as well as the lack of information among the IDPs on when and where the returns would take place. He said the U.N. also expected increased consultation with the relevant government agencies after the return.

“The process is going to be a difficult one,” Holmes said, referring to efforts to restore normalcy in the areas where, just six months back, bullets and shells were daily staples of village life.

In his latest visit to Sri Lanka (Nov. 17 to 19), Holmes said that the U.N. had been calling on the government for speedy resettlement and expressed satisfaction over the current phase of resettlement. “We were frustrated for a long time by the lack of returns,” he said in Colombo at the conclusion of his trip.

Holmes also raised continuing U.N. concerns over the lack of freedom of movement for the over 130,000 IDPs who remain in the welfare camps. He said he had brought up this specific issue in his meeting with top government officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“The fundamental point for us is the freedom of movement,” Holmes said. “We don’t have a problem if people still remain in Menik Farm (the largest IDP centre in northern Sri Lanka) after the end of January (2010), if they have freedom of movement, if they have freedom of choice.”

Relief agencies were quick to point out that the return of normalcy in the war-affected zones would be only possible if they had access to the sites. “Humanitarian agencies must now be allowed to give them [the civilians] the help they need in all the places that they return to,” British International Development Minister Mike Foster said.

U.N. country head in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne told IPS that U.N. agencies had satisfactory access to the areas of return, but many other international non- government organisations had yet to gain entry. “There are major challenges in the areas of resettlement,” he said. Highest on the list was ridding the Vanni of 1.4 million landmines and unexploded ordnance that litter the region. “It is a big issue,” Buhne said.

Amnesty International (AI) also welcomed the civilians’ return but said access to relief agencies was now more pivotal than ever.

AI deputy director for Asia-Pacific programme Madhu Malhotra said humanitarian and human rights organisations needed “unimpeded access” to the displaced people being resettled to ensure their safety and well-being, that their needs were being met and that they were “protected against further human rights violations.”

Two days after the Holmes visit, the Sri Lankan government announced on Nov. 21 that from Dec. 1, it would relax restrictions on movement placed on the IDPs remaining in camps. The government said the IDPs would be free to move in the region.

The decision to allow more freedom drew immediate praise from the international community. “These are steps which the United Nations has long been pressing for in its intensive engagement with the authorities in Sri Lanka,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said.

“Granting genuine freedom to decide their own future will be a major relief for those still trapped in the camps. The UK has repeatedly called for civilians to be freed and allowed the choice to return home,” Foster said.

To many IDPs, however, who have borne the brunt of the fighting, only time will tell how soon they can regain a normal life.

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