Sri Lanka

Feature - Sri Lanka's war displaced seek new start -- yet again

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By Simon Gardner

MANGANTHODUWA NAWATKUDA, Sri Lanka, June 19 (Reuters) - Saundrarajan Kannakai has been displaced by Sri Lanka's civil war over a dozen times in the past 16 years.

Standing in front of a dust-caked tent where she has lived for the past five months, the 34-year-old mother-of-three is one of around half a million people displaced by the island's two-decade conflict -- or around 2.5 percent of the population.

Forced to flee yet again when her home in the island's far northeast was flattened by the 2004 tsunami, she moved further inside Tamil Tiger rebel territory only to have to run again to escape fierce fighting last year as a war that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 resumed.

"After the tsunami we thought things would be stable, and then the war came again. Here we go again, back to square one," she said as her children flinched at the thunderous roll of distant artillery fire.

"Hearing these (artillery) noises on a regular basis has affected our brains, especially the childrens'," she added. "And living in this tent is like living in a furnace."

In the background, life goes on. A grocer travelling by bicycle weighs tomatoes on scales to sell to displaced families, and an ice-cream vendor sounds an electronic chime on his cart bringing children running from surrounding camps.

HOME SWEET HOME?

The government has resettled 60,000 people in the war-scarred eastern district of Batticaloa around 190 miles (310 km) northeast of the capital Colombo in recent weeks after driving the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels from this former rebel bastion following fierce battles and air strikes.

But tens of thousands more people like Kannakai, many of them humble fishermen or farmers, are still waiting to return home to rebuild their lives yet again. Hundreds of thousands of long-term displaced elsewhere are also waiting.

Some families resettled further north near the coast in recent months complained to Reuters they were forced to leave by the security forces and were threatened that their rations and drinking water would be withheld if they refused.

The World Food Programme has since attached conditions to food aid requested by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government for families being resettled amid fears of forced returns -- which the government has vowed will not occur.

International aid agencies say the resettlement has been voluntary so far, but many families in Batticaloa are anxious. Some want to return home. Others, afraid their villages are still unsafe, say they are being given no option.

"As far as we know, the resettlement has been mostly voluntary to date," said Martin de Boer, Batticaloa mission head for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But concerns about wider resettlement remain, not least the danger of unexploded bombs and shells, or UXOs.

"What will happen once people are resettled? Will they indeed be safe in terms of the presence of UXOs?" De Boer said.

"Also, will they have food? They missed an agricultural season. How will they restart their livelihoods? We saw that many houses have been looted, so that means they have to start from scratch."

Around 500 unfortunate newly-resettled families have also found themselves grappling with a more unlikely problem. While they have been living in cramped refugee camps, wild elephants have trampled their houses and eaten rice stocks stored inside.

SAFE TO RETURN?

The government says it has almost entirely cleared Batticaloa of Tiger rebels, but the army continues to battle them in jungle pockets. Police have issued war-displaced with photo identity cards in a bid to smoke out Tigers suspected to be hiding among civilians in the area.

"These are to stop Tigers infiltrating the area. It helps us to control security," said Police Constable Veeriah Sundarajah, clutching an assault rifle as he distributed ID cards at another of the dozens of camps in Batticaloa.

The rebels, who say they are fighting for an independent state in the north and east for minority Tamils, warn that while they have lost their hold on the area geographically they still retain their military capability, and sporadic ambushes and attacks continue in the district.

Many residents blame both sides for a conflict that has choked the $23 billion economy's potential and repeatedly held back their own lives.

"Only if things return to normal can we go (home)," said 65-year-old paddy farmer Eraimumurthi Kanapathipallai as shells exploded in the distance.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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