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SRI LANKA: Peacetime Can Mean Hard Times

MANKULAM, Sri Lanka, Jan 13 2012 (IPS) - It’s a new year, a new beginning but probably a harsher reality in Sri Lanka’s former war zone. As the country enters its third year since the end of a bloody sectarian war that tore the nation’s fabric apart, for many of the survivors of the worst fighting, a tough but true reality is dawning. Life in peacetime may yet be a hard struggle.

The north of Sri Lanka carries the scars of war. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

The north of Sri Lanka carries the scars of war. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

In the vast swath of land in the north known popularly as the Vanni, where large areas were controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) till their defeat in May 2009, tens of thousands have returned to their homes or to live with host families.

More than 236,000 had returned to the Vanni by the end of 2011, according to the government, and only around 6,500 people now remain displaced. When the war ended there were close 300,000 who had fled the battles, most escaping the fighting with nothing in hand.

The war is over but a newer struggle is just beginning – one to make a decent living in peacetime. That option is much harder under the scorching Vanni sun than it appears on paper.

Whatever help there was is drying up fast. The Sri Lankan government and the U.N. made a joint appeal for 289 million dollars in 2011 for work in the Northern Province. By the time the appeal was closed at the year-end, only 93 million dollars had been raised, a shortfall of almost 70 percent.

Sri Lanka received 170 million dollars in other aid, according to the UN, but given the needs of the war- devastated region, massive amounts are still needed. Such support would be needed for years to come.

The U.N. is yet to spell out how the shortfall would be handled, whether some projects would be postponed or curtailed. There has been substantial input for setting up permanent housing, but in fields like economic development, education, civil administration and water and sanitation, facilities are running short, according to a report by the Asia Pacific Regional office of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Thailand.

U.N. officials in Colombo are reluctant to make predictions. “It’s difficult to predict the level of funding for 2012 as fund-raising continues throughout the year,” Sulakshani Perera spokesperson for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka told IPS.

On the ground, more and more people find it hard to get by. A World Food Programme (WFP) assessment in October last year found that more than 60 percent of the population in the Vanni lacked enough income generation levels to be classified food secure. WFP also found that 1.1 million people in the Northern Province owed sums as high as six months average income, because they had got into debt buying food. The WFP said that despite funding constraints it did not cut down on rations distributed.

No government figures exist on this, but unemployment in the Vanni is estimated to be around 20 percent, five times the national rate. About 30 percent may be earning less than a dollar a day. The WFP survey last year found that more than half the Vanni population lived below the poverty line of a spending power of one dollar a day. There is the very real possibility that things will get grimmer.

UNHCR’s Perera said the agency was gearing up to work under tighter budgets this year. “UNHCR will continue to protect and assist our persons of concern, within the constraints of its funding from donor nations,” she said.

People in the Vanni need any help they can get, not cutbacks. “The main source of income is agriculture, but I have not met anyone who can still support a family without any help in the Vanni,” said 70-year-old Sellaiah Thiyagarasa from Oddusudan village. He worries that economic woes will be exacerbated by the lack of jobs.

“When we came back after the war, there was nothing left for us. No one can expect us to regain a lifetime in two-and-a-half years, we need help,” said 40-year-old Thurairaj Krishnasingam from Tharmapuram village.

For those who have returned and live in interior villages like Oddusudan in the deep Vanni, there are few options. With employment generation low and likely to remain that way at least in the short term, many are trying to take matters into their own hands rather than wait for help. Cottage industries like chicken farming, bee-keeping and home gardening are becoming popular as returnees try to make the fertile earth around them work for them.

“These are popular because you can easily find a market in your own villages,” Kanagasabapathi Udayakumar, general manager of the Vavuniya North Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society (MPC) in Nedunkkerni village told IPS.

But these are limited options, and it is a bitter test that awaits the war returnees – that of grappling with making a living in peacetime.

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