Feature Article

‘Let my people lead normal lives’

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 10 June 2003, 20:01 GMT]
“My people have endured great agony and suffering for twenty years. Let them lead normal lives like those in other parts of the country”, the Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph told a delegation of Sri Lankan armed forces and officials that is on a fact finding visit to the district on the island’s northwestern coast Tuesday. “It is imperative that they shouldn’t be made to wait any longer for their rightful share of the peace dividend which everyone outside the northeast has enjoyed for more than an year”, the Bishop said.

The bishop urged Sri Lankan armed forces to leave the homes, properties and places of worship which they continue to occupy in Mannar to help people in the region rebuild their lives.

Echoing the same concern, officials at the Mannar District Secretariat said more people are appealing to them for getting back their homes and properties still occupied by Sri Lankan armed forces.

“The demand is on the increase in this district now because more refugees are returning from India, eager to restart lives in their homes and cultivate their lands”, one of them told TamilNet.

A large segment of the Mannar population (entire villages in some instances) fled the war to south India since 1983. The district’s proximity to the south Indian coast and traditional ties across the sea divide impelled thousands from Mannar to seek safety in Tamil Nadu.

After languishing for more than a decade in the dire conditions of refugee camps in the state, hundreds of families are defying restrictions by Indian authorities to undertake the risky journey across the sea to Mannar now, officials said.

In 1999 forty-seven families comprising hundred and two persons returned by sea. The number dropped next year when heavy fighting broke out between the Sri Lanka army and the Liberation Tigers. Only nine families comprising 19 persons arrived in 2000. It remained low in 2001 too (20 families, 39 persons). The number shot up after the ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2002 (237 families, 474 persons).

“But this year from January to May alone 242 families comprising 502 persons have arrived from India despite restrictions on leaving refugee camps in India and the difficulties of the sea journey. There are Muslims too among these returnees”, a Mannar District Secretariat official said.

“They have been away from their villages for so long that they are eager and clamouring to go back to their homes and properties. But in many places these are still occupied by the armed forces or are mined or destroyed”, he added.

“We have returnees coming to our offices daily, seeking redress but we are able to offer them little assistance because the government provides us little money to deal with their plight and we have no say over the problem of displaced persons whose homes and properties are still occupied by the Sri Lankan armed forces in Mannar”, the official said.

The team of Sri Lankan armed forces officers and officials began a two day consultations and visits Monday.

Mr. K.W.E Karaliyadde, additional secretary to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence, Major Gen Nanda Mallawarachchi, Deputy security forces commander for the Vanni. Brig. K. S Fernando, Commander P. H. D Silva Navy camp in Poonewa, Vavuniya, Commander S. A Weerasingha commanding officer Talaimannar Naval Base, Mr. M. M Saburudeen Sri Lankan govt. nominee to the Mannar branch of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and the district’s Government Agent Mr. V. Visvalingam visited several places where public and private property continue to be held by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Bishop also joined the team in the afternoon.

The group visited many places in Mannar Island Tuesday. It was informed that fishermen in Thaalvupaadu, a coastal village near Mannar town, do not have direct access to the beach due to Sri Lanka Navy positions there and have to therefore take a long detour carrying gear every day. The visitors’ attention was also drawn to the fact that the Navy occupies Ceylon Electricity Board building in Sunny village in this area.

Later in the afternoon it went to Uyilankulam and Parappaankandal on the mainland. Three hundred and fifty families have resettled in Parappaankandal. The village, including a Catholic convent and school, was occupied by the Sri Lanka army earlier. Community leaders here, who met the team, urged the Sri Lanka army to open the Convent Road, the village’s main thoroughfare.

The group then visited Uyilankulam. The Bishop said told the Sri Lankan armed forces officers that Uyilankulam was one of the most busiest places in mainland Mannar before it was taken over completely by the army. He pointed out that the town has to be revived soon because it is the main marketing centre for nine agricultural villages in the surrounding region.

Uyilankulam was one of the biggest rice milling centres in the Vanni before the war. The town’s bazaar was generally busy round the clock. When the SLA took the main road to Mannar in early 1997, Uyilankulam was turned into a large garrison.

During the visit Mannar SLMM member, Mr. Saburudeen, told the SLA that it should vacate a Mosque near the Uyilankulam Junction.

Mannar Secretariat sources said that the Navy agreed in principle to give up the Port Worker’s Union Building in Talaimannar And that the army said it would consider vacating the Co-operative Society building in Mannar town during discussions with the fact-finding mission Tuesday.

According to Mannar District Secretariat records the Sri Lanka Police occupy 22 public buildings, 4 private coconut plantations, a Hindu temple, a Catholic church and 55 private homes in the district. The SLA occupies 17 public buildings, 57 private homes, 2 temples and 2 schools. The Sri Lanka Navy has eight public buildings, a Palmyra grove, a coconut estate and forty-seven private homes.

The number of houses occupied by the Sri Lankan armed forces in Mannar is higher than what these records show because many owners haven’t reported the matter because they are still in India, officials point out.

 

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