Keppapilavu: The long struggle to go back home | Sunday Observer

Keppapilavu: The long struggle to go back home

4 March, 2018
One year into resettlement in Pilakudyirrippu PIC: COURTESY CPA
One year into resettlement in Pilakudyirrippu PIC: COURTESY CPA

Keppapilavu marks one year of land protests, as families displaced by the war continue an unending roadside demonstration for the right to return to their ancestral lands in the formerly embattled Mullaitivu District

It started with 40 families protesting day and night by the side of the road, one year ago. In Keppapilavu in the Mullaitivu District, through seasons of scorching heat and heavy monsoonal rains, and the sometimes bitterly cold nights in the dry zone, the families continued their protests, demanding the right to return home.

Over 365 days, the Keppapilavu land protests have seen a surge in support, with more families displaced in the island’s embattled Northern Province joining in the demonstration. The Keppapilavu protestors are demanding the return of some 482 acres of privately owned land which have remained under the control of the Sri Lanka Army even eight years after the war ended.

Ten months into the land protests, in December 2017, the Government intervened to ensure the 131 acres of land were returned to residents in Keppapilavu. But the protests did not end because land had been returned only to 87 families out of 104 who had now joined the demonstrations on the roadside. They sit in protest across the road from where their land is visible.

“We stay here through sun and rain with our children. Until some solution is found through whatever means, we will not leave this place. We need to get on with our lives,” Keppapilavu resident Chandraleela told the citizen journalism network Vikalpa last week.

Families in Keppapilavu were originally displaced in the final phase of fighting between Government forces and the LTTE, according to human rights activist Ruki Fernando. They were subsequently detained illegally at the Menik Farm camp in Vavuniya. According to Tamil National Alliance Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran, when Menik Farm was hurriedly shut down in 2012, ahead of UNHRC sessions in Geneva, the residents of Keppapilavu were temporarily relocated to shelters in Seenimottai in the Mullaitivu District. “They were told that it was temporary and were dumped in the forest. A temporary measure from 2012 has now extended till 2017,” Sumanthiran told Parliament in March 2017, nine days after the Keppapilavu displaced families began what became a year-long protest. According to the TNA, residents had occupied their lands in Keppapilavu since 1910, more than 100 years before they were displaced by the war.

“These lands are not just of monetary value to them, they are an integral part of their identity,” activist Ruki Fernando said when he visited the protest site last week, as the demonstration reached its one year mark. “Their ancestors have been buried here. Their kovils and churches are here,” he explained.

Fernando says, if these families are not granted the basic right to return to their lands, there was “no point talking about reconciliation.”

According to a report by the Adayaalam Centre for Policy and Research, with data compiled through sources at Government offices or through Right to Information requests, security forces continue to occupy 1,276 acres of private land in the Mullaitivu District, with 1,211 acres of that located in Maritime-pattu, where Keppapilavu is located. The ACPR report claims that the largest number of military structures can be found in this part of the district, near the Nandikadal Lagoon where the final battles of the civil war were fought in 2009. Keppapilavu, where the roadside protests have been continuing for over a year, is home to the Sri Lanka Army’s 59 Division and a Sri Lanka Air Force Camp.

And, even when displaced families are returned to their lands, problems of resettlement and livelihood support persist, activists said. The Government paid Rs 148 million to the military to relocate its camp, but no money had been allocated for resettlement of the families, they added. Residents of Pilakudiyirippu and Paravipaanchan also in the Mullaitivu District who began an indefinite protest in February 2017, were returned to their lands after a month of roadside demonstrations. In both these areas, the Centre for Policy Alternatives said, the Government had paid the military to relocate in order to allow the original occupants of the land to return home.

One year later, the families are glad to be home, but continue to struggle to resettle and lack livelihood support. Access to water and public transport are also a problem, according to recently resettled residents.

Mullaitivu Government Agent Rupavathi Ketheeswaran confirmed that land had been returned to 87 families in Keppapilavu in addition to those who had been resettled in Pilakudiyirippu last year, but admitted that no money had been set aside yet for the resettlement of these families. “The budgetary allocation for this resettlement is for this year – 2018. So provision will be made this year to help them resettle,” Ketheeswaran told the Sunday Observer. There was more private land to be returned in the Puthukuduirippu and Oddusudan areas of the Mullaitivu District, she added.

Thiruchelvam Parvathi who went back home to her land in Pilakudiyirrippu last year, says her little house with its roof of coconut fronds has barely any facilities. Besides their kitchen utensils and clothes, her family does not have much else to call their own.

“We had 22 fruit bearing trees on our land before, but now we’re left only with one,” said Thiruchelvam. “I have planted new trees now. I walk 1km each day to bring water to water my plants. We will grow the trees again.”

Pix : Marisa De Silva