Sri Lanka refugees living in limbo

About 100,000 Tamils remain in refugee camps as the country prepares for the polls.


    Around 100,000 people are still living in refugee camps in the north of Sri Lanka [EPA]

    As Sri Lanka prepares for its first presidential election since the end of the civil war, around 100,000 ethnic Tamils are still being held in refugee camps in the north of the country.

    The incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is expected to face a strong challenge from the retired army general, Sarath Fonseka.

    One of the big election issues has been the treatment of the minority Tamils, after thousands died in the final stages of the war.

    Wayne Hay was granted a rare opportunity to travel to the former battleground, to see how the Tamils are coping in peace time.

    The war is over and some of the victims are beginning to build a new life after an internal struggle that lasted more than a quarter of a century and affected hundreds of thousands of Tamils.

    Many who were displaced are now free from the government refugee camps they were forced into during the fighting between the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army.

    Some are lucky enough to be back where their homes once stood and, with the help of the government and international aid agencies, are beginning to build a brighter future.

    For others, that is still long way off.

    'Not good enough'

    in depth

      Profile: General Sarath Fonseka
      Profile: Mahinda Rajapaksa
      Focus: The contest for Sri Lanka's future
      Blogs: Filming Sri Lanka's displaced
      Blogs: Sri Lanka prepares to vote
      Video: Tensions grow over Sri Lanka vote

    A journey north along the severely bombed A9 road reveals hundreds of families forced to take refuge on the roadside, finding shelter in the remains of someone else's home.

    Trying to survive in houses that no longer have roofs and with what is left of the walls pitted with bullet holes and bearing the scars of heavy artillery fire, it is difficult, if not impossible, to put the past behind them and begin looking forward.

    "The whole episode makes me very sad," says Sellaiah Thainabalasingham.

    Sellaiah and his extended family lived in refugee camps for six months before being released, but have not been able to return to their property.

    "When we were getting on the bus to leave the camp, they told us we were going home. We didn't know we were coming here. It's not good enough that we have to live like this."

    They have been told they can go back to their farm in two weeks but Sellaiah thinks it will be a lot longer than that.

    When they get there, they are expecting to find that they have lost all of their possessions.

    Broken promises

    According to the army, the population remaining inside the refugee camps stands at just under 100,000. At its peak, it was more than a quarter of a million.

    We were taken inside what is known as Zone Zero for a closely guarded tour. There is a large school, which shapes the minds of the young victims of war.

    There are food handouts from international aid agencies and what appeared to be a regular supply of water that is trucked in.

    But some of the residents, like Kanakasahai Rukmani, say it is not enough. In tears she told us she just wants to go home.

    "They keep promising to send us back, but it never happens. We're struggling here.

    “We don't get enough food and we don't have enough clothes."

    The residents can now leave temporarily to stay a few nights with nearby friends or relatives, but they still cannot go back to their homes.

    In the nearby town of Vavuniya, the population has almost doubled because of the influx of refugees.

    At the market, many come to sell the handouts they receive from the aid agencies inside the camps.

    "In the camp we only get rice, flour, dhal and oil. We can't cook what we want with that. We don't get any vegetables," says Nallaih Koneswari.

    "We don't have jobs either so we come here to sell things like flour to make money to buy better food."

    The Tamil vote

    Refugees receive food from aid agencies but most say they want to go home [EPA]
    The reason, the army says, it is preventing people from going home is because the areas where they lived are potentially littered with landmines which it is slowly clearing. It says it is about half way through the 480 square kilometres it has to clear.

    There is plenty of other work still to be done. Much of the north and east of the country were destroyed during the war. In the former Tamil Tigers' stronghold of Kilinochchi most buildings have either been damaged or completely levelled.

    Further north on the Jaffna Peninsula, which has been in the hands of the Sri Lankan army since 1996, there is still widespread damage and it will take years to rebuild.

    Now with a presidential election looming, the Tamils will get their chance to vote for who they think is the best man to take the nation forward and help their cause.

    For those still inside the refugee camps, the army says it will set up booths or bus them into Vavuniya to vote.

    During the last vote in 2005, the LTTE called for Tamil civilians to boycott the election, which most did.

    Now, they are free to decide who they think is the best man to take the nation forward and represent their needs, and they are expected to hit the polling stations in large numbers.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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