COLOMBO, 24 May 2007 (IRIN) - Some 90,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Batticaloa District in eastern Sri Lanka are in the process of returning to their home villages in Batticaloa West. With their houses and crops looted, many now face tough food and livelihood challenges, according to initial reports from humanitarian agencies.
A major portion of Batticaloa West had been under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) prior to the government's March offensive in the region. As fighting got under way, some 75 per cent of residents fled east bringing the total IDP count in Batticaloa District to almost 150,000. They have been living in some 90 welfare sites and with host families and relatives. According to 11 May government figures, some 138,000 IDPs remained in the district when the latest resettlement wave began.
The Sri Lankan government initiated the resettlement campaign on 14 May, with families boarding buses and other vehicles for the short, 20km journey to their homes in Villavelly town and four nearby villages in the southernmost division of Portativu Pattu. According to the government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), while there has been looting of many houses, very few were actually damaged by the fighting.
Within the first week of the resettlement programme 17,632 members from 4,715 families returned to their homes in areas in Batticaloa West, the government said. The government plans to resettle in three phases all IDPs who had left their homes in Batticaloa West, according to Rishad Bathiudeen, minister of resettlement and disaster relief services, who was in Batticaloa to see off the first set of IDPs returning to their villages. Some 38,000 are expected to be resettled by 1 June.
Starting 1 June, an additional 5,374 families will return to Paddipalai and 2,437 to Vavunathivu, according to Batticaloa District Project Director K. Sivanathan. These resettlements are expected to be concluded by the end of July. Resettlement to areas further north in Batticaloa West is scheduled to occur before the end of the year. Some of these areas are still contested, with a strong LTTE presence remaining.
According to reports from UNHCR and other humanitarian groups, the process of transporting the initial group of returnees home to Portativu Pattu was largely uneventful, although there were cases in which IDPs were concerned about returning. In all cases, the returnees were accompanied by security forces and government officials.
As part of the return process, families have been registered and ID photos taken of them. They are also being given one-week food rations, and have been promised an additional one-month of rations upon their return home. According to humanitarian officials on the ground, distribution of the one-month's rations has not yet commenced.
Access for aid agencies
On 18 May a UN Inter-Agency Mission visited the resettlement areas of Villavelly, and now the humanitarian community has access to the resettlement communities, provided government authorities are given 24-hours advance notice.
The government first announced in February that it would begin resettling IDPs this month, but the return process was complicated somewhat by the fact that, until 10 May, the specific timetable and details of the government's resettlement plan were largely unknown by either the IDPs themselves or the humanitarian community.
Most IDPs have been anxious to return to their homes, according to UNHCR, particularly as it is time for them to begin preparing their fields and planting their crops. However, the lack of information about the return process and the incessant rumours about the security situation had made some of them reluctant to return.
IDPs fear returning to their homes Vellavely
In Mahiloor camp in Kaluwanchikudy division, several days before the resettlements started, a large group of IDPs told IRIN that they feared to return to their homes in Vellavely because they continued to hear artillery firing into Batticaloa West and they believed unexploded devices remain in their villages. They also said their possessions and their harvests had been looted.
"We know that those who stayed behind took advantage of the situation," M. Malarvili told IRIN. "They broke our doors and looted our houses and they stole our crops," she added. Her information came from IDPs who fled Batticaloa West later than others, in late March and April and from others who sneaked back in to check out their homes.
Other IDPs told IRIN they worried about returning to their villages for fear of being caught in the fighting again. "We have lost everything but we don't want to lose our lives," T. Sanmuggan, an IDP whose home was in Paddipalai, told IRIN. He said he would only return once the humanitarian agencies are once again a presence in his community.
According to the UNHCR, in recognition of such anxieties and in response to the lack of general information regarding the resettlement process, the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, with UN agencies, is planning to circulate a leaflet informing all IDPs of their entitlements.
UN agencies have raised several concerns over the resettlement process to Batticaloa West. Three days before the resettlements commenced, a situation report of the Inter Agency Standing Committee stated that the returnees were being denied visits to the villages. "The resettlement plan has not been presented yet and the humanitarian community fears that the lack of proper planning might put returnees in a situation where safety and dignity are not ensured in the villages of return," it said.
Shortly after the return process was under way, UNHCR Country Director Amin Awad stated that the returns were voluntary and in line with international protection standards. However, he added: "We do urge the government to continue the step by step phased approach, upholding international protection standards and ensuring that their [IDPs] return will continue to be voluntary."
UNICEF has also voiced concerns over the situation in the resettlement villages, specifically over lack of education facilities, poor sanitary and water conditions and underage recruitments. Its chief field officer in Sri Lanka, Natascha Paddison, said that although the IDP's preferred to return they were still uncertain over their security. "So, a lot of people have lost hope," she said.
Rukshan Fernando, Coordinator of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme of the Colombo-based Law and Society Trust, voiced the frustration of many in the humanitarian community, itself, who were denied access to the resettlement villages in the initial days of the returns. He tried twice to visit the newly resettled areas, while the first batches of IDPs were being transported. Both times he was blocked by the military.
"On the second day, a senior Special Task Force officer we met told us that they could not allow us to go for fear of 'our security'. It was difficult to understand how the area could be insecure, when thousands of people were being sent back there," he told IRIN.
Now that the humanitarian community has gained greater access to the resettlement communities, it is rapidly assessing what immediate assistance is needed for the returnees. The UNHCR has called on the international community to help with assistance, while asking the government to expedite the rehabilitation plan for resettlement areas. What is most needed, according to initial reports from humanitarian agencies, is food and the inputs and equipment for communities to restart their livelihoods - most importantly, paddy agriculture in an area that is known by some as the "garden of Batticaloa".