Magazine article New Internationalist

A Long Road to Reconciliation

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Long Road to Reconciliation

Article excerpt

Thurairaja Kanagamma hasn't stepped foot on her land for 29 years. She lost her home in the Jaffna peninsula in 1989, when fighting escalated between government forces and ethnic Tamil insurgents. The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), known as the 'Tamil Tigers', waged a 26-year war to try to establish a state in the north and east, independent of the succession of largely Sinhalese Buddhist governments. A lthough the civil war ended in 2009, Thurairaja is still living in a camp for internally displaced people.

'I came to this camp when my daughter was three,' she says. 'She's 26 now.'

Thurairaja is one of nearly 400 people who live in the Chunnakam camp, close to Sri Lanka's northernmost city, Jaffna. Effectively a long-term refugee camp for people in their own country, Chunnakam is a tightly packed network of corrugated-iron dwellings (houses would be an overstatement). Most of the residents have similar stories: caught up in the war, they were forced to leave their homes and the fishing that sustained them.

Today the residents' land remains occupied by the army. Reliant on temporary, low-paid work, they also have to deal with the stigma of living in a 'welfare camp'. Rajitha's two teenagers were born in the camp, and sleep side by side in a room the size of a single bed.

'Living here limits our income,' R ajitha explains, 'and the schools are reluctant to take our children, knowing they live in a camp.'

The camp's leader, Selvie, runs a shop on the street just in front of the dwellings, which means she is always available when someone important visits. But her expectations are low. In February, United Nations High Commissioner for Human R ights Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid A l-Hussein of Jordan came to the camp, but it didn't make any difference.

'He promised to solve our issue within three months, but nothing happened,' Selvie says. 'We are fed up of people coming and giving broken promises.'

The 'common candidate'

The UN-endorsed Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that there were up to 73,700 internally displaced people in Sri Lanka as of July 2015. This number includes Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese people, although Tamils and Muslims are disproportionately affected.

In December last year, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena made a surprise trip to a nearby camp, and promised to set up a task force. Sirisena has made a lot of optimistic promises in his short career as president. He rode into his post on an unexpected wave of support in January 2015 after challenging the populist but divisive President Mahinda R ajapaksa. R ajapaksa and his administration were accused of war crimes, corruption and nepotism - and these allegations have not gone away. Sirisena stood as a 'common candidate', representing a coalition of opposition parties who wanted Rajapaksa out.

Activist Priyadarshanie Ariyaratne was one of the first people to champion the idea of a common candidate. 'It is thanks to the regime change that we are still alive,' she says. 'If it had not happened I am not sure I'd be here today, because it was changing very rapidly into a dictatorial state.'

Rajapaksa's rule saw the end of the civil war, but after it had ended he didn't wind down his campaign of militarization.

George K risti is a retired teacher who has lived in Jaffna for most of his life. When R ajapaksa was in power, he says, 'every corner, every bit of the street, every junction, every where you could see the military. They were omnipresent.'

Such impressions are backed up by research. The Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, analysed government data from 2014, which suggested that at least 160,000 soldiers were stationed in the north, equalling roughly one army member for every six civilians.

Oakland executive director Anuradha Mittal is worried that militarization has not halted, even under Sirisena. 'If the war is really over, if Lonely Planet can call Sri Lanka a must-visit place, that means there is peace and security,' she says. …

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