An island people’s battle to return home | Sunday Observer

An island people’s battle to return home

Displaced residents are allowed to fish off the Iranaitheevu Islands but only in the day time  photo    courtesy: uplist
Displaced residents are allowed to fish off the Iranaitheevu Islands but only in the day time photo courtesy: uplist

After the election of the new Government in 2015, the people of Iranaitheevu, forcibly displaced since 1992, finally thought they would be able to return home. Yet, a flurry of letters and high-level meetings with government officials and politicians in 2016 and 2017 have not brought results.

In desperation, the community took the difficult decision to begin a continuous roadside protest on May 1, 2017. Almost a year later, they are continuing the fight.

Iranaitheevu is a pair of twin islands situated in the Palk Strait, belonging to the Poonekary Division of the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. A channel of sea water runs between the Big Island (Perum Theevu) and Small Island (Sirum Theevu).

According to an official survey map of 1982, 143 plots of land were demarcated in the larger island of Perum Theevu and 35 plots in the smaller island of Sirum Theevu. Villagers trace the island’s history to about 200 years, pointing out an old watch tower from 1886. At the time of first displacement, around 125 stone houses, six wells for drinking water, a health center, a school and two churches were reported to have been on the island.

Fishing was traditionally the main source of income, with men going to sea and women engaging in shore-based fishing practices, such as harvesting sea cucumbers and crabs, with both men and women contributing to the family income. Families also reared livestock, including cows and goats, engaged in cash crop cultivation of onions, chilli and manioc, and cultivated coconut trees.

The island waters are rich in limestone, providing a rich breeding ground for a wide variety of fish species and base material to build houses on the islands as well as on the mainland. Islanders had trading and socio-cultural relationships with people in areas in Southern Sri Lanka like Negombo, from where a Catholic Priest had reportedly visited the island for church services.

War and displacement

The first major displacement occurred in 1992, when there were about 200 families displaced to the mainland due to the war.

Since then, the Navy occupied the island, providing sporadic and limited access to the villagers until 2007.

Islanders were again displaced multiple times from 2007 throughout the last phase of the war. Those who survived were detained in Menik Farm, in the Vavuniya District.

They were eventually released and allowed to return to the place they had lived in displacement in Iranaimathaanagar, near Mulankavil, one of the closest mainland points to their island. But since this last round of displacement in 2007, the Navy has prohibited them from returning or even freely accessing their traditional islands.

Following negotiations with the Navy, the people are now allowed to travel to a restricted coastline of the island for fishing, but they are not allowed to stay overnight.

Travelling daily between the island and the mainland dramatically increases the cost of fishing. Furthermore, women from Iranaitheevu who used to engage in coastal fishing are unable to do so now and are without work.

Family incomes have suffered, particularly, those of women-headed households that dominate most parts of the war-ravaged North. The rising cost of fuel and decreasing marine resources caused by illegal fishing from Indian trawlers in Northern waters has also drastically affected incomes of fishing families. The only time of the year residents have been allowed to visit the island since 2007 is for a pilgrimage to the Church during the Lent season, usually, a day in February or March.

Fisheries Cooperative

During this year’s pilgrimage, displaced residents say their freedom of movement had been restricted and severe inconvenience caused to the people by the Navy, despite the Parish Priest having obtained prior permission for people to stay in the island for three days for the traditional Lenten church services.

The Iranaitheevu Fisher Cooperative had been a thriving institution, functioning on membership contributions when the fish harvest was plentiful. It played a huge role in the well-being of the community and most of the stone houses on the island were built with subsidies from the Cooperative, but today it is struggling to meet daily expenses.

The Cooperative structure, with its democratically elected leadership, also ensured the island’s resources were sustained and developed for the use of future generations. But recently, individual fishermen from outside the area have been given access to fish and profit off the island’s resources, allegedly by the Sri Lanka Navy.

This has led to a breakdown of community checks against profit driven exploitation of natural resources and has further fostered a strong sense of injustice among the islanders as they’re being deprived of their islands’ resources.

The paper trail

Since their return to Iranaimathaanagar in late 2009, the people have made several attempts to reclaim their lands. These intensified after the election of the new government in 2015. But despite continued communication and protests, leading to some vague assurances at different points from high levels of the government that they would be able to return home, they have still not had definitive answers.

Efforts included appeals to the Northern Province Chief Minister, who had appealed on their behalf to the Resettlement Minister; an appeal to a local MP Vijayakala Maheswaran, who had appealed on their behalf to the Prime Minister; and an appeal to the European Union Delegation in Sri Lanka that had also appealed to the Resettlement Minister on their behalf. Finally, they appealed twice in 2017 directly to the President.

On May 1 2017, in the absence of any clear information about when they could resettle, the people commenced a continuous protest in Iranaimathaanagar. They also took the protests to Poonakari, Kilinochchi and even Colombo. A community leader also attended the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to highlight their ongoing struggle to resettle in Iranaitheevu and seek international support.

These efforts, especially, the protests, led to a series of meetings and discussions between the Iranaitheevu community leaders with staff at the Presidential Secretariat, the State Minister of Defence, local MP Vijakala Maheswaran, the District Secretary of Kilinochchi, the Divisional Secretary of Poonakari, Navy officials and also with a Parliamentarian and members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

An outcome of these efforts was, the officials of the Survey Department visiting the island in September and October 2017. But no information has been provided to the people about results or follow up actions.

No information has also been provided to the people about the response of the Kilinochchi District Secretary to a request by the Resettlement Ministry in March 2016 to “submit detailed report regarding the resettlement of Iranaitheevu Island, including the tentative cost estimate, as early as possible” or a letter from an Additional Secretary to the President and to the Defence Ministry in August 2017, asking “to take appropriate action”.

Nor has any update been provided about the promise made by the State Minister of Defence to discuss resettlement in Iranaitheevu with the President and find answers.

Waiting to go home

Currently there are approximately 400 families living on the mainland nearest the islands in Iranaimathanagar. Around 95 are women-headed households.

Despite their displacement for almost 25 years, the people remain deeply attached to their island. The literal translation of ‘Iranaimathanagar’, to which most families were displaced in 2007, means ‘the mother city of Iranai’. The official Grama Niladari Division number is still retained and the Sub Post Office, the government school and the Fisheries Cooperative all carry the name of Iranaitheevu despite their physical structures currently standing in Iranaimathanagar.

The people’s demands are simple. They want unrestricted access to Iranaitheevu, to settle there permanently to engage in fishing, cultivation and maintaining livestock as they did before their displacement.

They are not demanding the Sri Lanka Navy to be removed from the area entirely, but are seeking the release of private lands which have been occupied for decades and for action to be taken to prevent island resources from being misused and exploited by people accessing them illegally.

[The author is a human rights activist. This article first appeared on www.groundviews.org]

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