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Sunday, 14 June 2015

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Coming home is not easy

Land acquired for HSZs in the North is being released, but for the owners of these lands, rebuilding lost homes is a tough task:

Maj.Gen.Nandana Udawatte

The sea side road along the recently released lands of the former High Security Zone in Kopay, Jaffna was dustier than usual with the little construction work that started a few months ago. The overgrown lands and gravel roads are getting cleared removing the thick vegetation cover.

War-affected villagers who took refuge in Point Pedro, nearly 10 kilometres away, in the mid 1980s, have now returned to slowly rebuild their houses on these cleared lands. Just like any rural area of the country, people in these villages have also owned a significantly large extents of land.

In the Valalai area, in Kopay Division, Emanuel Jayaratnam (50), a fisherman by profession, was clearing his land making it ready for his family to resettle. The land faces the shallow waters of the Palk Strait and a six feet earth bund at the edge of the land separated it from the sea.

“I got the land six months ago and I have to start from scratch to rebuild the life we had here,” Jayaratnam said.

He said nearly 60 families were in his village at the time they were leaving it in 1985 when the war between LTTE terrorists and the government forces was at its height.

Presently residing in Point Pedro, Jayaratnam comes to his native land as time permits. “We can not leave Point Pedro because we are not allowed to fish in this part of the sea,” he explained.

Ramakrishna Konsi (51) was sitting under the shade of an abandoned Church compound adjoining her land, to avoid the scorching glare of the sun. She was alone as her sons have gone to sea that morning for fishing.

Making bricks to construct houses
 
A temporary house

“I was able to return to my land in March and there is a lot of clearing to be done,” she said. Konsi, now a widow, she was residing in Point Pedro, where her sons grew up to become fishermen.

“I do not know whether they would come to settle down here as there is more than ten kilometers to Point Pedro. But I will come,” she said with gleaming eyes full of hope.

The church compound, is in ruins – collapsed over time due to negligence but there were less signs of gunfire or aerial attacks. Young men of the village working for a daily wage were making concrete bricks for housing. The bricks were laid in the church premises to dry.

Life-long struggle

There is no bus service at the moment for this part of the village and most of the people use bicycles as their transport mode. It appears that the poor people of the village, who were poor even 30 years ago are the ones who have returned to their native lands. Those who were more capable financially had settled abroad nearly two decades ago.

Reclaiming one’s own land after leaving them due to life threatening reasons has become a life long struggle for Northerners. The war has sealed many problems in the social and administrative systems in a way that returning to the normal state is seen as a rebellion. Even though it is the Government that is ultimately responsible to settle the land issue in the North, the Tamil political parties hold the military responsible for seizing their native land. And the dispute continues despite the reports frequently published over media on lands being released in the Jaffna High Security Zone.

Northern civil societies say the military is still attempting to be an obvious and active presence within the day-to-day life of Northerners. They complain land acquisition has prevented the local population from accessing their homes, farmlands and fishing access points.

A petition was handed over to the Jaffna District Secretariat in September 2014 by leaders from Poonthalir Women’s Organisation and the National Fisheries Co-operation Movement with regard to lands not released in Valikamam North Mayiliddi area said that “is causing us lost job opportunities and with no basic livelihood more difficulties for food”.

“Furthermore, we are affected in terms of economy, education, hygiene, and culturally. Therefore we request to resettle us back in our own lands,” they stated in the petition.

Despite these facts the military has released about 6,260 acres lands of the Palali Military Cantonment within the last six years which was around 11,630 acres before 2009.

“The number of camps were reduced to 93 from 152 within the last few years,” said Major General Nandana Udawatte, Jaffna Security Forces Commander.

Slowly resettling Emanuel Jayaratnam

The Jaffna High Security Zone was around the Palali cantonment. The lands were released since 2009 in seven batches.

The first batch was in October 2010 where nearly 371 acres were released in the Kadduvan area located South to Palali. The second was in November and in Senthankulam to the west of Palali and around 1,952 acres were released.

High Security Zone

On May 9, 2011 another 1,972 acres of lands were released in Thellippalai. On October 6 the same year 346 acres of lands in Kadduwan were released to the owners. In stage five, another 628 acres were released to the owners in Thondamanaru area in November 2011.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a three member committee in March this year to examine the fullest extent of land in the High Security Zone in Jaffna to be released to legitimate owners.

The committee comprises Resettlement Ministry Secretary, Ranjini Nadarajapillai, Secretary to the Ministry of Land and Land Development, Dr. I.H.K. Mahanama and Defence Secretary B.M.U.D. Basnayake.

Following the appointment of the committee as the latest stage in land releasing, the Government announced the release of 1,000 acres of land in the Valalai and Thellippalai High Security Zone where 400 acres were initially returned to the owners on 23 March and the balance on April 10.

When questioned whether the military is ready to release the balance lands, Maj.Gen. Udawatte said it depends on the instructions from the Government.

“There are a few number of requirements to maintain a Security Forces Headquarters and that requires land too. As the security Forces Headquarters of Jaffna we need to have land and buildings for training and basic requirements for usual administration work. We will need that space,” he added.

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