Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We crept into the small house! No chairs to sit! Gunawathi humbly invited us to sit on the mat! An oil lamp was lit for God Shiva!

Normalcy returns to Northern villages:

Rising from the ashes

By Sahanika SRIYANANDA reporting from Vavuniya

Aiiyadorai Gunawathi

True peace has now dawned in the Northern region after many years. With no deadly sounds of firing or explosions or abductions, the villagers of Vellankulam, 40 km off Vavuniya, are planning their future. After a brief spell of rain, the fertile land has turned more green with fresh leaves popping out.

Children now live without fear

Still facing a water scarcity, the villagers thanked the soldiers for cleaning the abandoned well. Aiiyadorai Gunawathi (60) was drawing water from the well when we stopped at her doorstep.

The villagers fled Vellankulam in end-2008 and the LTTE herded them like cattle. Gunawathi, though physically not fit to run, moved with the rest of the villagers from place to place.

The villagers carried their household items in tractors, motorcycles and bicycles the day they stepped out of their village on orders from the LTTE. They continued to run each time soldiers captured an LTTE-dominated area. The number of goods that they carried dwindled and at last they possessed only the IDs and a few certificates to prove that they were citizens of Sri Lanka.

Gunawathi’s last destination in the harrowing journey was Ammpalanpokkanei, where the LTTE kept thousands of civilians as a human shield to get international sympathy to stop the military push, last year.

Her only son, who is married, lives in Varani, Jaffna. Undergoing many hardships including starvation, the villagers fled LTTE control and ran for safety towards the Army.

Those bitter memories are now fading away with the infusion of a new lease of life. Twenty eight families have returned to the village from the Chettikulam welfare centre. Instead of their damaged houses, they have now got small wattle and daub houses.

We crept into the small house. There were no chairs to sit. Gunawathi humbly invited us to sit on the mat woven of palm leaves. A bag of clothes was hung on the wall. An oil lamp was lit for God Shiva. Gunawathi boiled water to make tea while relating to us her story of those days when they were in the grip of the LTTE.

Her small kitchen had some stocks of essential food items given by the Government as rations to resettled villagers.

“We thank the soldiers for helping us to build these houses”, she said.

The newly-built houses give the village a fresh look. Yet, with no colour washing, the row of houses reminded us of an eco-friendly tourist resort.

Fed by the Government

K. Kailanathan

Anandaraja at his stall
Subramanium Lechchami (58) was Gunawathi’s neighbour. Her daughter, Lakshmi, who is a widow and mother of three grown-up girls, owns the village’s only boutique.

Though the villagers resettled here after an year-long stay in the Chettikulam Welfare Centre, they are still fed by the Government. A small plot of land has been turned into a home garden with vegetables and fruits. Earlier, they grew tobacco, but abandoned the cultivation due to water scarcity. The Army has now promised them to find sponsors for water pumps.

“There is good demand for rice. I sell essentials worth Rs. 1,000 daily”, Lakshmi said. Her three daughters continue their studies at the Nedunkerni Tamil Maha Vidyalaya.

They said the LTTE ordered them to run, saying the Sinhalese soldiers were coming and killing people. Lechchami, Lakshmi and her family ended their deadly journey at Pokkanei and were lucky enough to get the help of the Sri Lanka Navy, which shipped them to safety.

The Nedunkerni town, a strategic location for the LTTE for several years, fell into Army hands on December 20, 2008. The few severely-damaged and bullet-ridden buildings which remain among the buildings coming up are showpieces of the battle that captured Nedunkerni. It had an LTTE ‘police’ station and a prison operated by the LTTE’s intelligence unit.

Today, it is yet another busy township where business booms and lives are returning to normal with more displaced people returning home.

In the makeshift boutique, teenager Anandaraja sells everything, from vegetables to essential food items to soft drinks to chocolates. Though they are not chilled, the soft drinks have a fairly good demand.

Small business
Anandaraja re-started schooling after they returned to Kulavisuddan village from the welfare centre nine months ago. With Rs. 25,000, the money granted by the Government for the refugees, his mother has started a small business in the town.

His mother became the breadwinner of the family after his father was shot dead by the LTTE, which started firing when the family together with thousands of displaced civilians fled Puthumathalan, a few weeks before the military defeated the LTTE.

Being a Grade 10 student, Anandaraja looks after the business while his mother attends to housework and takes his two younger sisters and brother to tuition classes. With the Nedunkerni Tamil School returning to normal with new teachers arriving and facilities for children improving with the assistance of the Army, private tuition classes have started, especially to help children catch up with the lessons they had missed.

The teenager recalled how his mother hid him from the LTTE, which came on several occasions to recruit him as a child soldier.

“We ran from place to place and lived in huts. Some died of snake bites. They came to take me and some other boys, but my mother kept me hidden.

The Sinhala villege of Kokeliya

She told the LTTE police that I was missing while I remained in a hole dug near the hut.

Each time we ran away, my mother did that. It was difficult to live there as it was hot during the day time. Some times I thought I would die as I could not breathe”, he said. The happy and proud mood of the boy changed and tears glistened in his eyes.

But he kept on relating his experiences. Life for him and thousands of other children was dangerous after they reached Puthukudiyiruppu and then Puthumathalan, where the Government had declared two No Fire Zones (NFZ). Civilians on the run expected relief, but the LTTE had made the NFZ its battle pad with their heavy weapons fixed amidst the civilian population.

“Now, I can’t even imagine how we suffered two years ago. I don’t want to suffer like that again”, the boy said.

With soldiers moving around frequently, talking to them in a friendly tone, helping them in their day-to-day activities and guarding their townships and villages from dawn to dusk, the young Northern generation is now in touch with these souls whom the LTTE had described to them as evil.

Anandaraja hopes his mother will secure a place in the new market that is being built for the first time in the Nedunkerni town. A Co-op Shop is the latest attraction in the town. A new bus-stand is under construction and the Divisional Hospital of Nedunkerni functions well with a crowded OPD with 75 patients and five deliveries being performed daily.

For the first time, the town is connected to the national grid and the hospital which is currently running on generator power will be given priority.

The majority of villagers being farmers, they have reaped a high yield in tobacco, vegetables - brinjal, chilies, pumpkin - and fruits from the fertile soil which is similar to that of Nuwara Eliya. They sell the products at the market in the town and also to traders that come from Vavuniya and Anuradhapura. The farmers have been given water pumps by several NGOs, through the Army.

Nedunkerni Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, which has 370 students, has got a ‘Happiness Centre’ and a psychotherapy centre, funded by the Army for the primary section. After many years, the map of Sri Lanka now adorns the school walls. Instead of a Tiger with a T-56 drawn out and the map of Sri Lanka with LTTE-dominated areas in red, to motivate schoolchildren to join the outfit, a picture of a teacher dancing with small schoolchildren is now displayed.

The Centre has toys, books, sports equipment for cricket, chess and badminton and musical equipment. The small children who were used to scenes of flesh and blood, and crying in fear when they were caught up in a deadly war, are now learning life through dancing, music and playing.

Major Anura Illangakoon, Commanding Officer of the 17th VIR, said that from the initial stages of the resettlement program, the soldiers helped the villagers and this gradual assistance grew to a strong bond between them and the Army.

Dry rations
“Though the Government provided these villagers with dry rations for the first three months after resettlement, the Army gave them cooked meals, and then helped them build their houses, clear the land for cultivation, and guarded their villagers. Now they want us to help them restore their livelihoods”, he said.

Resettled in Kulavisuddan, a village eight km off Vellankulam, the villagers have started cultivating vegetables and selling them in the Nedunkerni market.

Seventy-year-old Kaneshavari, who cultivated tobacco earlier, is growing vegetables as they have a good demand.

She has to feed her two young daughters and also her eldest daughter who had been given in marriage in her teens to prevent her from being forcibly taken away by the LTTE. Today, the old mother is saddled with extra responsibilities as she is compelled to feed two grandchildren.

Her daughters who missed schooling for over two years are now doing their Advanced Levels at Nedunkerni Tamil Maha Vidyalaya.

Kaneshavari, who is sick of being trampled under the LTTE’s boot, prays to the Gods to not make them suffer.

“We had to pay a tax of five percent from each kilo of vegetables or any thing we sell, to the LTTE. We did not want to go with the LTTE, but they started assaulting us when we refused to go with them. The males and young boys and girls were abducted by the LTTE. The parents who refused to give their children away were badly beaten and left in prisons”, the woman who fled Puthumathalan during the last days of the conflict said.

She said that the LTTE never helped the villagers and even the food and other items sent by the Government were used by the LTTE and distributed among their loyalists. None of the villagers had proper houses, but they lived in huts which were like cowsheds while the LTTE leaders enjoyed luxurious lives.

“The LTTE spread false propaganda that they were helping the Mahaveera families. When a cadre died, the family got Rs. 5,000 and that was all. When we were in Puthumathalan, the LTTE attacked the Army using heavy weapons fixed among us. They shot at us when we tried to flee.

“The LTTE ordered every one to join them to fight, but people refused and prayed that the Army would save them”, Kaneshavari said.

She still curses the LTTE and Prabhakaran for making the Tamils suffer. She does not want the LTTE to raise its head again.

“We want soldiers to be with us. When they are here we know the LTTE cannot come back. We want to save our children and provide a good future for them. Today, even in the middle of the night, we can be out on the road as the Army is there to protect us. Those days, after 6 pm, we were in bunkers”, she recalled.

The Army which had set up camps in private buildings and other areas, are gradually vacating them, following the instructions of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Thandikulam Army Camp, which had occupied over 10 acres of private land, was handed over to the original land owners, in July.

K. Kailanathan (68), a former employee of the Ceramic Corporation, was busy clearing his three-quarter acre land which had debris from the Army camp along the A-9 road. “It’s very difficult to find a labourer and it’s also costly”, he said.

Happy that the Army has returned his land, Kailanathan, who was clad in a verti, the traditional dress worn by Tamils, said he stayed with relatives after his land was taken over by the Army in 1990.

Store room
His five-room house with a big store room which could stock over 1,000 bags of paddy was completely destroyed by the crossfire in 1997.

Being a farmer who owned 23 acres of paddy land, Kailanathan said that he could not build the house as he is now old and weak.

“Tamils became poor due to the LTTE and lost everything. With no education, it will take ages to produce educated Tamils as the present young generation lost the opportunity for education due to the 30-year war”, he said.

Kailanathan said though they very well know that the LTTE is no more, they get nervous even when they hear a tyre puncture.

He said people were happy as normalcy had returned and the A-9 road had become a busy highway with hundreds of vehicles using it daily.

After the military silenced the LTTE’s guns, the villagers of the 175-year-old Sinhala village - Kokeliya - have returned to their homes which they had left in 1985.

Kokeliya is the only Sinhala village in the area and was always targeted for LTTE attacks. Since the 1980s, the LTTE abducted and shot dead many villagers to make them run away from the village.

Nine prominent village personalities, including the chief-incumbent of the village temple, Grama Sevaka and schoolteachers, who tried to save the village, went missing forever. The LTTE set fire to the Kokeliya village one night and bombed some houses.

Unable to face the LTTE terror, the entire village - 980 people - fled and sought refuge in camps in Senapura and Nochchiyagama while some went to their relatives. Some families returned to the village in 1992 and 2002, but again abandoned the village as the LTTE started harassing them again.

“We came here in January this year and on the instructions of Brig. Napagoda, the soldiers are helping us to build our houses, clean wells and schools and clear abandoned paddy land. As we are now 100 percent sure that the LTTE will not come back, we want to develop this village”, Sunil Gamini said.

He recalled the days where they, as young children, crept into the forest to sleep in a hole dug for their safety. “ The LTTE, who came to the village in the middle of the night, massacred many families and set fire to their houses”, he said.

Ajith Priyashantha, an ex-sailor who ran away from the village when he was 16, said his father and seven others were abducted by the LTTE. They are still missing.

“As we were displaced several times, we missed our education. The LTTE killed our family members. The damage the LTTE did to us is enormous”, he said.

The villagers of Kokeliya want to develop the village to provide a better future for their children who are now schooling. People from the adjoining Tamil village, who too have been recently resettled, helped the villagers of Kokeliya to clear the roads and cultivation and in turn the villagers of Kokeliya helped the Tamil villagers in their work. Both communities now have one desire - “Don’t let the LTTE raise its head”.

Reconciliation among the two communities, the missing ingredient in strengthening relations, has naturally begun with new found peace after the annihilation of the 30-year curse - LTTE terrorism.

I recalled Gunawathi’s kind invitation. “Vanthu Irukkavum. Tea Kudikkavum” (Come and have a seat. Have a cup of tea). The lost link between the two communities is re-emerging. The hatred created by LTTE terrorism is gradually fading away. Despite the communication barriers, facial expressions denoting happiness and kindness have helped bridge the gap between them to renew their ties.


A helping hand from the soldiers

Brigadier Priyantha Napagoda

Brigadier Priyantha Napagoda, the General Officer Commanding of the 56 Division, said resettlement is nearing completion in many areas of Vavuniya. Soldiers helped the villagers to construct houses, clear abandoned land for cultivation, clean wells, repair schools and hospitals and remove earth bunds built by the LTTE .

“In most villages, there are many widows while some men are in rehabilitation centres. The soldiers helped them construct their houses. There are three Army units in charge of these activities and they build 10 houses every month”, he said.

Brig. Napagoda said villagers want the soldiers to remain in their village to provide security though the Army was gradually vacating private premises.

Several medical clinics have been held with the help of local and foreign doctors. The villagers who mainly depend on agriculture are waiting for the rains so that they can commence farming. He said the change in these people is obvious from their physical appearance. “We noticed their appearance and behaviour when they initially came to us. Nobody was laughing and they looked at the Army officers with suspicion. They had doubts about the soldiers as they were thoroughly brain washed by the LTTE for over three decades”, Brig. Napagoda said.

The 56 GOC said after ending the conflict the Army had delivered the message among the villagers that the Government needed their support to re- build their villages and also to re-build a new Sri Lanka. “We told them that the Army would not leave room for the LTTE to make a comeback and needed their support. We requested them to give information which could protect them. During this short period, we have built trust and given them confidence that they can rise from the debris of the 30-year curse”, he said.

According to Brig. Napagoda, not a single incident of violation of law and order has been reported since May 2009. Police Stations are gradually being set up in these villages.

For the first time in decades, a musical show and Sinhala and Tamil New year celebrations were held. “Tamil girls and Army soldiers took part in some games to strengthen trust and understanding among each other. These activities have helped remove many doubts”, he said.


Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2010 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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