Killinochchi, March 12: This year the migratory birds came back to the Jaffna peninsula scarred by 20 years of civil war, as the year-long ceasefire brought quiet and the return of the internally displaced.
Along the A-9 highway, past the LTTE area of Wanni to the Sri Lankan army-controlled Jaffna, families are rebuilding blasted homes. The Sandhinathan family came back with 500 others from the Vavuniya camp in January. The couple was fixing up their old roadside shop while four others were rebuilding the house and planting cabbages.
Ammo boxes have been transformed into flower-beds, disused railway tracks serve as beams in the Tamil Rehabilitation Office (TRO). Uniformed children follow lessons in wall-less schools. Fields of burnt stumps of palmyra are replanted. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) canvas sheets flutter in the wind, a mute reminder of histories of displacement produced by the major offensives of 1990, 1995, 1997 and 1999-2000.
In LTTE-controlled Killinochchi, a Tamil restaurant owner returned from Colombo at the request of the LTTE to inaugurate an “A” grade eaterie to cope with the rush of visitors. Killinochchi boasts of the lowest food and bottled water prices on the island. As the LTTE civilianises its military structure, a bureaucratic culture is growing fast — Rs 2 entry forms to access the two checkpoints, Omanthe and Muhamale.
On either side of the A9 highway are endless stretches of barbed wire clustering into a thicket around abandoned army camps. Mine alerts are everywhere. Of the estimated 900,000 mines, 10 per cent have been cleared, claims Lawrence Christy of the TRO. He denied that there was pressure on displaced persons to return to areas that still had to be de-mined. The year 2003 has been announced as the year of resettlement of the displaced, whose number the UNHCR estimates at 800,000.
Already, 200,000 are back, said Christy. According to the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives survey of public perception in the Jaffna peninsula, 63 per cent of the people believe that the government is not committed to the return of the displaced on a priority issue while 61 per cent believe that the LTTE is committed.
Return is complicated by the “domino effect”, said the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) Jaffna district head, Ole Brondum. “It involves a long chain of re-housing,” he explained, as successive waves of the displaced have moved into houses abandoned by people earlier.
When the peninsula was taken by the Sri Lanka army in May 1996, LTTE forcibly evacuated 280,000 people to the mainland Wanni across the Jaffna lagoon.
The LTTE plans to set up an arbitration structure to deal with disputes.
The one issue of displacement that the LTTE has taken up in earnest is the return of people to homes in the high security zones. Although there is no direct call for the withdrawal of the 40,000 security forces in the area, public protest has focused on dismantling the zones which prevent people from returning to their homes and their livelihood of fishing and cultivation.
The Sri Lanka government has appointed Gen. Satish Nambiar, who led the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, to untangle the issue. He will have to demystify the extent of the zones.
The LTTE claims the displacement of 29,000 homes, the government agent estimates 14,000' Is it 14 per cent of the Jaffna peninsula or 33 per cent, as the LTTE claims.
Walls and boundaries in the zones have been collapsed and the landscape reshaped to create army camps, thus complicating land claims, especially as 70 per cent are said to have left behind land title deeds.
In addition, there is the delicate issue of the return of the Muslims. In October 1990, the LTTE ordered an estimated 120,000 Muslims to leave the north within 48 hours.
Father Jayakumar of the Jaffna diocese claims that a few traders have returned but without their families. The LTTE is making no gesture of reconciliation. “They are being asked to come back, like everyone else,” Father Jayakumar said. J. Maheshwaran, who is part of the LTTE team at the peace table, said 150 Muslim families have returned to live in Mullaitivu, in the vicinity of the LTTE supremo, V. Prabhakaran.
In Jaffna, the long queues, which formed outside the new LTTE political office to redress civil grievances, have shrunk as the LTTE concentrates its attention on political mobilisation through the commemoration of Remembrance Days.
The latest occasion was the “martyrdom” of three LTTE activists who committed suicide on a trawler boat in an arms-smuggling incident.
It was not allowed to disturb the peace talks, a testimony to the high stakes that most have in the success of the process, especially the displaced people.