Sri Lanka

Return and rehabilitation - the challenge in Sri Lanka

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The two-decade long war in Sri Lanka has left a staggering 630,000 people internally displaced. The country's official population is 18 million. Most of the displacement took place in the war-affected North East of the country. Another 330,000 people sought refuge in Europe and India. After Afghanistan, Sri Lanka has the largest number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in South Asia.
The conflict has left behind a horrifying death toll: 65,000 civilians killed, 17,000 people missing and 20,000 rebel fighters killed in the war. The Sri Lanka army has not disclosed the number of casualties it has suffered, though it is known to run into thousands.

This dance of death, orchestrated with a monstrous ferocity for two decades, has finally halted. A cease-fire agreement was signed in February 2002 between the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government.

The fourth round of peace talks is currently taking place in Thailand, with the Norwegians acting as mediators. However, the Sri Lanka Aid conference, held in Oslo in November 2002, drew a very disappointing response. Only 40% of the expected funds were promised. Donor countries are wary of giving assistance before a permanent peace is established.

Thousands of displaced people who have languished in miserable camps for the last decades have already decided to return home. Around 120,000 have done so even when there is no official rehabilitation package on offer. The war- torn country has empty coffers and has officially announced that it did not have adequate money to rehabilitate all.

The IDPs are returning to areas that are devoid of any sustainable support. Most of the agricultural lands are mined. Like all the third world countries that chose to use land mines, no proper maps were maintained, turning many of the agricultural lands into potential killing fields for the eagerly returning people. UNICEF and other NGOs are providing services, educating people and de-mining. Widespread awareness programmes have so far minimised the number of victims, but as more people return home, danger lurks under every step.

The Sri Lankan war was marked by two blockades over the last two decades. An economic blockade and a news blockade. The outside world has not seen the extensive damage to buildings, infrastructure and the roads.

Most of the small towns lie in ruins, many without any electricity. Village crafts have collapsed in an area where the only industry was war. Most of the schools were destroyed owing to neglect or bombing. Destroyed housed are a festering wound and a dangerously provocative symbol in a country that is attempting to restore peace.

The war has left behind a huge number of war widows and orphans, with many families deprived of the traditional "bread-winner". These families need psychological rehabilitation and a strengthening in community structures.

Added to this is the looming need for income generation. Business loans, non-formal skill development, and the return of children to school are some of the challenges facing NGOs.

The war has not ended; it is in a suspended mode: the fourth round of talks have encountered some difficulties and are still on-going. Conditions and demands made by the rebels and the Sri Lankan army threaten to derail the process and divisive issue will still have to be faced at a later stage.

That brings us to the issue of ex-combatants. Neither the state nor the NGOs have worked out a robust plan for this group. Most of these men and women joined some rebel movement as teenage fighters.

JRS and its response:

JRS has been involved in the clear (army controlled) and un-cleared (rebel controlled) areas for the last five years, though our work has been heavily hampered owing to the economic blockade and the suffocating restrictions on the movement of workers.

With the cease-fire agreement, these hurdles have been removed. JRS also has been able to appoint an experienced worker as the new country Director. He has toured extensively the war-affected areas and has initiated rehabilitation measures. With a strong focus on education, JRS has already initiated educational assistance in the relief camps, war affected villages and resettlement areas. With the collaboration of the local church, JRS helps supplementary education centres in Jaffna, Mannar and Mullaitivu areas. Training of teachers and supporting the regular schools are other means of reviving the educational system.

The JRS programme has identified families affected by war and distributed business assistance, with further plans to bring more families under this scheme. Attempts to bring war-affected youths back into the mainstream of society are also being made. Soon, skill schools will be started for men and women.

In Jaffna, with the collaboration of OMI, JRS has initiated a shelter programme. This is an area where there is a great need, involving many NGOs. Unless the people have a home, other programmes might turn out to be meaningless.

JRS initiated two other programmes:

1) Collaboration with the Bhuddist clergy. Venerable Punnya Sara Thero, a Bhuddist monk has been working very closely in Peace building and working among the displaced. He conducts peace seminars for the Bhuddist monks and nuns. His efforts have borne good fruit in the border villages. He also leads the visit of monks to refugee camps.

2) Another major work initiated recently is Human Rights training in the Mannar Diocese. The huge number of disappearances makes a mockery of any attempts at normalisation in the island. There is no peace without justice. To achieve this, JRS has been training the Mannar clergy and the people in human rights education and documentation.

Peace is a long journey. Both parties in the peace talks affirm that without a comprehensive rehabilitation, peace remains only a dream.

The international community must rise up to the occasion with proper rehabilitation assistance to prevent a relapse into war in Sri Lanka.