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SRI LANKA: Former Battle Zone Getting Used to Peace

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, Apr 23 2010 (IPS) - In the yard of the Javiz Arulanandam’s church here lies the top portion of a statue of Jesus Christ. Only the head remains of the statue, which would have been at least 20 feet tall.

Many buildings, like this church, are undergoing renovation in the war-battered north of Sri Lanka.  Credit: Adithya Alles/IPS

Many buildings, like this church, are undergoing renovation in the war-battered north of Sri Lanka. Credit: Adithya Alles/IPS

No one knows how it got to the church compound but Arulanandam, the priest in charge of the church, thinks that Sri Lankan soldiers may have brought it over.

The torso-less Christ is a constant reminder of over two and half decades of bloodshed, he says. “The war did not spare anyone or anything. It made all of us suffer,” he told IPS while sitting in the church courtyard.

The front portion of his residential quarters will convince any sceptic who doubts the priest’s words. It is a mess of pockmarked walls, caved-in rafters and what was once a roof. There are signs that it was once some kind of a classroom in the rear portion of what looks like part of a church. That part is completely destroyed. A newer church stands close by, but that too has been damaged by the war.

Workers were busy working on the damage to the church facade, getting it ready for a new coat of paint. Inside, a more creative worker was drawing out the background of the altar.

Like most buildings in this former battle zone, Arulanandam’s church is undergoing major renovation.

A little more than 12 months ago, the church was in the middle of a conflict zone. Kilinochchi was the political and administrative nerve centre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the Tamil Tigers.

The group fought a bloody war with the Sri Lankan state since the early 1980s, demanding a separate independent state for minority Tamils. The war cost the country over 70,000 lives.

After failed peace talks with at least five Sri Lankan governments, the war ended in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tigers. The last bout of fighting left over 280,000 displaced, the bulk from Muliathivu and Kilinochchi districts that form a large part of the Vanni, the areas once under Tiger control.

At least 170,000 of those displaced have now returned to their homes. “It is a difficult thing. The war was everywhere, and for years everything was determined by the war. It is not easy to enjoy peace or to get used to it even,” the Catholic priest told IPS.

The army’s engineering corps, which is in charge of clearing mines with the help of civilian agencies, said that more than 690 square kilometres remain to be demined. More than 1,000 sq km have been cleared so far, said Maj Gen Udaya Nanayakkara, head of the corps.

Since demining efforts began last year, more than 15,689 anti-personnel mines, 37 tank mines and about 4,500 unexploded ordnance have been recovered. Just about everywhere, the red and white skull-and-bones sign warning of mines can be seen in the Vanni.

Civilians who have returned to their homes know that they have a real struggle in their hands. There are any hardly jobs in the region. Most of the returning families use part of the 25,000 rupees (220 U.S. dollars) they receive as cash grant to set up temporary living quarters to either start small businesses or get back to farming. Agriculture and fishing are the main means of livelihood here.

Still, many are willing to go through the hard grind. “If this is the price for peace, then we will pay it,” said Joseph Devasagayam, a resident of Omanthai in Mulaithivu district. He says finding jobs and staying off minefields are nothing compared to what he endured a year back. “My God, there were bombs from everywhere, we were running, there was no turning back. Imagine not being able to sleep for days because you were scared of dying,” he told IPS. For now, Nagaraja Kallaiamuda a 27-year-old mother of two young children, lives in a small mud hut in Puliyankulam, a village on the side of the main road near Kilinochchi. “I find some work by helping people who have returned, but it is difficult. Soon I hope there will be some way we can get more steady work.”

Her husband is in detention for suspected links with the Tigers. “I hope he will come out soon, so that we can plan our future,” she said. About 1,800 former Tigers have been released so far. More than 10,000 remain in detention centres, but the government has pledged to free them gradually.

The optimism is shared by civilians in the Jaffna Peninsula, the country’s northernmost part that was virtually cut off during the last phase of the war between late 2006 and mid-2009. Jaffna, the cultural and political heart of the Tamil minority, is now only coming back to life with the opening of land routes.

“You see people everywhere, there is no curfew, there are few checkpoints and there is more money now,” said Jegan (one name), a helper in one of the many large shops in Jaffna.

“It will be hard, there is no question about that,” Arulanandam said about going back to normalcy. “Years of trauma caused by war cannot be erased in days. It will take years. But now we can go to bed feeling sure that we don’t have run for our lives.”

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