Iranaitheevu, Sri Lanka – Last month, in an extraordinary act of courage, more than 350 members of Sri Lankan Tamil minority defied military restrictions and successfully reclaimed their homes on the Navy-occupied island of Iranaitheevu after 26 years of forced displacement.
It is the first time since the South Asian country’s civil war ended on May 18, 2009, that civilians have successfully reclaimed occupied land without government permission.
Three weeks later, on May 15, the government relented and finally granted the community official permission to return home.
A 1992 navy offensive during the war forced all 650 of Iranaitheevu’s residents to flee by boat across the Palk Strait to Iranaimaatha Nagar on Sri Lanka’s mainland.
The community was never able to reclaim its home, as the war forced them to displace several more times over the next 17 years.
When the Sri Lankan government secured a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist group, in 2009 it also forcibly detained 300,000 Tamil civilians including the Iranaitheevu community in militarised displacement camps that were notorious for their inhumane conditions and rampant human rights abuses.
Over 100 LTTE fighters, who surrendered in 2009, remain disappeared. On the ninth anniversary of the end of the war, rights groups have urged the government to provide information to the families of the disappeared.
Even after the government released most Iranaitheevu community members from the camps six months later, it never authorised them to return home.
Instead, the navy remained on the island, and the Iranaitheevu community returned to Iranaimaatha Nagar.
Although the war has now been over for nearly a decade, the Sri Lankan military continues to occupy large swaths of land, preventing thousands of families from returning home.
While the current Sri Lankan administration has released some land since coming to power in 2015, the most recent government figures indicate that 40,000 people, mostly Tamils, remain internally displaced. A 2016 study by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), however, suggests that the figure may be even higher.
When the community returned to Iranaimaatha Nagar after the war, the Iranaitheevu Women’s Development Society (WDS) began organising the community to carry out advocacy campaigns and protests demanding government permission to return home, but to no effect.
Then, last month the community stopped waiting for permission.
About 350 community members – men, women and children – piled into 44 motorboats on April 23, and sailed back to the island, even though they were terrified that the navy would retaliate.
“We were scared. We knew it would be dangerous. We thought we might lose people,” said WDS head, who did not wish to give her name.
The community’s unprecedented success was the result of a meticulously orchestrated plan, quietly developed over the last year by the WDS.
WDS members spent months enlisting media, clergy and activists to accompany them when they returned to the island. They invited journalists, including a film crew because they believed that “the navy wouldn’t do anything bad in front of the cameras,” according to Elisabeth, a WDS member, who asked that only her first name be used.
Believing that the navy would also be less likely to fire on clergy than ordinary civilians, WDS also organised a dozen priests and nuns to join them. And in case anything went wrong, they brought civil society activists who could report on potential violations.
Because only about 20 navy officials are stationed on the six square kilometer island, the women believed that the navy would lack the capacity to stop dozens of boats unless they had forewarning.
So, the WDS formulated their strategy in secrecy to maintain the element of surprise.
“We didn’t even inform our husbands until three days beforehand,” Elisabeth said. They also asked journalists, clergy and activists to keep silent during the planning process.
On April 23, they tied white flags to all 44 boats to signal their nonviolent intent. They boarded the boats holding banners with slogans such as, “Iranaitheevu is our native land. Permit us to resettle” written in all three of Sri Lanka’s national languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Navy officials and intelligence officers flocked to the port and photographed them as they prepared to depart. But to the community’s surprise, they did not intervene.
The returnees were even more shocked when the Navy made no attempt to prevent them from disembarking on Iranaitheevu.
Instead, journalists filmed as officials politely confronted the community shortly after they walked onto the island.
With a priest leading the negotiations, the community explained that they had come to reclaim their homes, and had no intention of leaving.
They showed navy officials their land deeds, as well as legal affidavits that stated that the deeds were valid and proof of legal ownership.
The negotiations were successful. Over 100 community members are now living on the island. Other plans to arrive in the coming months.
The community reported that the navy rarely interacts with them, and have not caused any problems.
The Navy Commander in charge of Iranaitheevu declined to comment. Al Jazeera made several attempts to contact navy headquarters, but did not receive a response.
Life on Iranaitheevu is much more difficult than it was prior to 1992. Most houses on the island are uninhabitable after a quarter-century of neglect.
The school and hospital will both require significant repairs before they are usable.
Many people are living in the church, as it is the only accessible building that has a sturdy roof. Others have built temporary shelters out of woven coconut palm leaves, but water still seeps in when it rains.
The community hopes that their situation will improve quickly now that the government agreed to help them resettle.
DM Swaminathan, the Minister of Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Northern Development and Hindu Religious Affairs, said that the government will be providing assistance immediately and will help the community rebuild their houses, hospital, school and post office.
“There’s no time to waste. We need to turn it into an actual town,” he said.
The community insists they will stay, regardless of the challenges.
“We will persist, we will live here, and we won’t leave because this is our native land,” said the WDS head.