Resettlement woes in Keppapilavu | Sunday Observer

Resettlement woes in Keppapilavu

Didambarapullai Sinnathurai and Sivakumar Karthiyar   Pic : Shan Rambukwelle
Didambarapullai Sinnathurai and Sivakumar Karthiyar Pic : Shan Rambukwelle

Sivakumar Karthiyar (27) was chatting with two other ladies each of whom had a baby on their laps when we met her at the new Keppapilavu village in Mullaitivu. They sat on the floor, because the entire house had only one chair. The quarter-acre of bare land worsened the midday heat in this Northern Province village. Chickens scurried out of the way as strangers entered the compound, interrupting the women’s chat.

“Wannakkam Akka, Nam Varuvom?” (Hello Sister, Shall we come in?)

“Va, Va” (Come, Come), Karthiyar greeted us with a gentle smile.

The tiny house has a living room and two bedrooms. A kerosene cooker was placed in the corner of the living room along with a few pots.

After a long struggle to return to lands occupied by the military for years after the war ended, Karthiyar and her family settled in Keppapilavu in 2016. She is originally from the old Keppapilavu village, a part of which still remains under military control.

For these recent returnees, resettlement has been challenging, as they strive to find shelter and livelihoods. Karthiyar’s father abandoned her family when she was only 15 years old. Since then, the young girl, her mother and two sisters have struggled to survive. Part of this struggle involved getting caught up in the final phase of fighting between the LTTE and Government forces in 2009. Like most residents of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, Karthiyar and her family are also survivors of Sri Lanka’s deadly no-fire zone.

“It was a very tough time. As the fighting approached our area, we left everything and went to Puthumathalan” she recalled. Puthumathalan was within the Government designated ‘no-fire zone’ and where civilians were told to flee to for safety from the shells and bullets as troops advanced on the LTTE’s final positions. Over a decade, horrific tales from within that ‘safe zone’ for civilians have dogged the legacy of Sri Lanka’s final war against the LTTE. Karthiyar’s family had no idea about the safe zone or that they were inside it.

But in Puthumathalan, they built their own bunker and took shelter inside when the shells rained down.

“We felt safer when we were inside it,” she said. Eventually, the family fled to the army controlled area.

They were then moved to a displacement camp in Settikulam, where they had to spend the next 18 months.During those 18 months several things happened. Their original lands in Keppapilavu including her mother’s half acre of land were taken over for an Army camp and despite several protests, they are yet to return to their original place of residence. Instead, the family received another quarter acre of land close to their old village, but without ownership documents.

“GA (District Secretary) has all our land documents. Because of that, we cannot promise dowry for our weddings. It is a good thing that my husband didn’t ask for any land as dowry” she quipped.

Karthiyar had worked at a garment factory in Puthukkudiyirippu for 15 months before marriage and she could help her younger sister to go to school with her little salary. “Now I can’t work as I am married now,” she said.

As a newly married couple, it was hard for Karthiyar and her husband to live in the same house as her mother and sister. But they had no other place to go. Finally, they moved into a house which has no electricity, no water and which the owner has to them for a short time.

“There are some people who received released lands in Keppapilavu. But they are not ready to give up the land and house here. Therefore, legally we have no house to stay. This house we occupy is borrowed for a short time as the owner has moved to another place” she said.

Where Karthiyar and her family were eventually resettled, the Army had built 300 houses. Only 10-20 families had managed to build wells. To date, Karthiyar is forced to go to other houses to ask for water. According to her about 40-50 houses had been abandoned because the owners had got back original lands or they had migrated.

Neighbours do not always feel neighbourly about sharing water, the family realises especially during a drought.

For Karthiyar, life has been one struggle after another. “First the war, then getting back home and now water.”

Water

“Water is precious to us,” Karthiyar said laughingly. “So, even if you are thirsty please don’t ask us for water.” Sidambarapullai Sinnathurai (69) a newly resettled villager we met at the relocated Keppapilavu, is mired in debt. He used to be a driver before but was forced to stop work when he was diagnosed with high sugar levels.

During the final stages of the war, the LTTE conscripted his 20-year-old son. Later, the boy escaped the Tigers and Sinnathurai had managed to smuggle him overseas. But after a few years son had returned empty handed after being cheated by the employment agency.

“We borrowed some Rs 2.5 million from known people to fund our son. Nothing good happened and we are still paying that debt. We have still Rs 1 million to pay back. My son is now working in a paddyfield in Kilinochchi” said Sinnathurai. The Government has recently released Sinnathurai’s original land, but he cannot abandon this place as he has no financial capability to build a new house on his original land. “Now the Government say that we will get Rs 850,000 to build a house, but they are going to reduce Rs 350,000 considering the amount spent on our current house. So, how can we build a house with just Rs 500,000?” he asked.

Sinnathurai had an acre of land in his original village, but where he has been resettled he must make do with only a quarter of an acre.. He is trying to make do, growing bananas and coconut in the small area, but the cultivation has not yet reached profitable levels.“In our original land, we had 40 coconut trees and 20 jak trees.

Also, there were 10-15 Palmyra trees which were later cut down by the soldiers to build bunkers” he said in voice full of sadness. 

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