| by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
( November 24, 2012, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian)Returning home is never an easy task in the Vanni. After years of being caught in the cross-fire, hiding little children from Tiger press-gangs, running away from rampaging soldiers, having the entirety of several districts emptied of people, and living in camps, there was finally hope of a new life. People are slowly beginning to rebuild their lives through the help of NGOs and the government and, most of all, by their own sheer will. These farmers restarting life in their ramshackle shells is a testament to their resilience.
Peter (whose name has been changed to save him from being arrested by our intelligence services and put on TV to retract his story like what was done to the doctors from Mullaitivu), is a sturdy young father of three. He hails from Kokulai in the Mullaitivu district. Having protected his family from the ravages of both sides, he comes home with hope of a new settled life; of a time for himself and his young family to forgive and forget.
In the early 1980s, riots and war displaced the occupants of Kokulai village to outlying areas of the Vanni, and subsequently to Menik Farm in 2009. Spurred by the earlier violence of the 1980s, the area was converted into a military zone to protect the border between ‘Tiger’ and ‘Government’ territories. Unable to return, displaced farming communities are uniquely subject to poverty without land. They generally take on seasonal coolie work, which, when they are lucky, pays as little as Rs600 a day. For largely agriculture-based communities, such as Kokulai, their greatest asset is cultivable land, the loss of which can drive entire communities to the depths of poverty.
In October 2011, Government of Sri Lanka forces completed demining Kokulai. Families were invited to return to areas surrounding the established military camp. So they did. Peter remembers his father tilling a nearby plot of land. Growing up displaced in the Vanni, he and his father tilled other people’s lands for a day’s wage. Part of the highlight of Peter’s return to Kokulai is in owning the land they were cultivating. It is a thrill that only farmers know. Peter showed me his deeds to four parappus of land handed down to him by his father.
Peter could not resist coming home. He slashed his way through jungle and brush to identify his lands. Returnees from Menik Farm rightly receive special resettlement assistance through the government. The Indian government sponsors about a dozen tin sheets, some basic tools and utensils, while NGOs provide shelter and start-up livelihood packages to stimulate economic flow. Nonetheless, dismal levels of abject poverty – driven by caste, marginalisation and war – are characteristic of Menik Farm returnees to the Vanni. Water is scarce due to deteriorated culverts and polluted wells. Their tools are lost or rusted. But poverty is the hardest to bear. Yet, the thrill of being home kept them going.
That is, till early February 2012, when Namal Rajapaksa paid a pop-visit to the returned villagers of Kokulai. The belief that he was coming to assist them with their most urgent needs increased the excitement in the air. Peter and his friends perked up with hope. A new dawn indeed, it seemed. As they expected, Namal spoke to the people with a sense of great gravity, pity, and commiseration. He toured the lands of Kokulai, as they believed, to better understand their sorrows. He left that day with promises, raising much expectation in Peter and the poor returnees.
Whether Namal’s intentions were later led astray, or they had never been honourable in the first place, is difficult to know. Nonetheless, the next day the local AGA received a call from his office informing him that 20 acres of land, belonging to around 30 families, would be given to an East Asian company for the extraction of ilmenite. Before the families themselves knew of the transaction, strangers arrived and started setting up walls and fences around their property! Peter told me of the surprise that filled the villagers when strangers took over their land. Concerned, they approached the AGA with their deeds in hand. Now these are not government permits which can be revoked by the government; what they possess are deeds proving their ownership to this property for generations, yet the AGA claimed his hands were tied. How was he to stand up to the forces arrayed against these families? After the experience of the chief justice, would there be any judge who could be trusted to hear pleas on this dispute in a fearless manner?
Peter’s handsome eyes look bright with burning anger under his worried frown over the injustice and the robbery of his ancestral land. Illegal acquisition of land is happening all around Peter.
In the neighbouring village of Kokuthoduvai, the townscape is restored, yet the military protects Sinhalese farmers who continue illegally to cultivate Kokuthoduvai land within the heightened security zone. In Trincomalee, the fate of some 4,000 families lies in the illegal sale of land to private companies for coal generation and economic development. There was no talk of compensation or support. Neither have there been discussions of alternative income sources for these destitute families or the illegal farmers. These sales are conducted without owner consent by the most powerful people in this nation and undermine the very drive to peace that citizens of Sri Lanka have doggedly demanded.
Fear – the order of the day
I tried to take up this matter with a well noted NGO which provides free legal services and with politicians who just four years ago would have relished taking up the cause of Peter and his villagers. The lawyers refused to return my calls and the politicians, beside shaking their heads and grumbling about the state of affairs, were quick to change the topic when I asked about solutions. It appears in the present climate they do not want to hear about it at all. Fear is the order of the day.
There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that poverty and resentment do not open up old wounds again. I remember the president saying in faltering Tamil when he opened the Poonery bridge, that he promises only what he will do and does what he promises. But the promises of “Mahinda’s thoughts” sound pretty hollow in Kokulai. The poor without land to till cannot leave their families and work in cities miles away, especially not single women and families with young girls. They feel powerless and abused.
Christians will know the story that Prophet Nathan relayed when he confronted the rich and powerful King David who, despite having many wives, took his General Uriah’s only wife:
There were once two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man was incredibly rich, but the poor man had nothing but one beloved ewe (female sheep) which he nourished like his child. One day, the rich man had a guest, but instead of taking from his own flock, the evil man took and prepared the poor man’s ewe as supper for his guest.
David, not realising that Nathan had described his own adultery, immediately pronounced death on the rich man and stated that “he must pay for that lamb four times over.”
Surely it is the same situation here! The very land the people have tilled with loving care for generations has been robbed by those who have unaccounted riches. They add to their mountains of money. They buy Lamborghinis and party at expensive clubs, well beyond government servants’ pay. They do not even want to pay any tax on their Lamborghinis while the poor pay through increased taxes on flour for bread.
Will our rulers ultimately be obliged to like King David?