Focus/Spotlight

Battle for land reaches boiling point

By Easwaran Rutnam in the North

Sitting under a makeshift tent in the scorching sun in Keppapilavu is Chelliah Vivekanandan. A drain separates the tent from the road, and right opposite that is an army camp with police security near the gate.

Northern Sri Lanka experienced the most brutal part of the war, but peacetime seems to have brought little relief to some families.

A battle seeking the return of land that is rightfully theirs has reached a boiling point with politicians now being warned ahead of the next election.

While the military released several acres of land which was taken over during the war, more still remains in military custody.

One of the longest protests staged demanding the return of land continued in Keppapilavu in Mullaitivu last week while in other areas, war displaced families continued to live in deplorable conditions with nowhere to go.

For nearly two years, protests have been staged in Keppapilavu, demanding that land occupied by the military be returned to its rightful owners. In December, 2017, part of the land was released, but more remains and so the protests continue.

Last month, a group of protesters erected a temporary shelter opposite an army camp in Keppapilavu and demanded that the land where the army camp was located be returned to its rightful owners.

The main owner of the property, Chelliah Vivekanandan (60), told The Sunday Morning last week that he would continue to protest till his land was returned, even if it cost him his life.

Vivekanandan said that he was born in Keppapilavu and brought up his family there as well.

The war forced him to flee with his family and live in a camp for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP).
After the defeat of the LTTE, the military established a base in Keppapilavu, including Vivekanandan’s property in it.

Still an IDP

“For 10 years we were in the IDP camp, but the Good Governance Government promised us that the land will be released. However, that has not happened yet. When President Maithripala Sirisena visited the North recently, we thought that he will look at our plight, but there was no mention of us. We are sad and disheartened,” he said.

Vivekanandan sits on a mat under the makeshift tent every day without going to work while his family and others cook under the same tent on the side of the road.

As Vivekanandan spoke to us, the watchful eyes of the military at the camp caught our attention.
“The Army keeps a close watch on anyone speaking to us, especially if it’s the media or some activist. They even take videos from the security point,” he claimed.

Vivekanandan and several others initially erected a temporary shelter opposite the main gate of the army camp and staged their protest.

This resulted in the riot police being called in to give protection to the camp and prevent any violence from breaking out.

The Police, however, later sought a court order against the protest and the court ordered that the protesters be allowed to erect their temporary shelter a short distance away from the gate.

However, on Friday, the court allowed the protesters to move to a location closer to the main gate, on land owned by the protesters.

“We got a good ruling and are now protesting at this location legally. The court has recognised our protest. So we will continue to protest. All I want is my land back. That is all I am asking for. We are not trying to scuttle the peace or create a rift with the Army,” Vivekanandan said.

Attempt to intimidate the protesters

Vivekanandan said that the protest was not taken well by the authorities. He claimed that recently, the water supply coming from a well in the camp to the road was shut as the water was used by the protesters to cook their daily meals on the side of the road as well as for drinking purposes.

He also said that the electricity supply to temporary lights near the protest was disconnected on one occasion, forcing the men and women taking part in the protest to sleep in the dark near the street, placing their lives at risk.

Vivekanandan said that the protest had drawn wide attention and it had resulted in even Sinhalese families, at times, bringing food for them.

Meanwhile, Keppapilavu resident Chandraleela said that on Monday, the Police had filed a report in court against the protesters, accusing them of attempting to force their way into the army camp and also damaging two mobile phones belonging to the Police during a protest near the gate of the army camp two weeks ago.

Chandraleela and another protester appeared in court and denied the allegations.
“We insisted that there was no attempt to enter the camp and that the two mobile phones of the policemen were damaged as a result of their own carelessness and had nothing to do with the protesters,” she said.

She also said that the Police complained to court against some human rights groups visiting the site of the protest.

“The Police had told the court that we are inviting unnecessary attention as a result of this protest, and that people from the South are also coming here to see this. We are doing no such thing. Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims are living in unity. So what is wrong in Sinhalese people coming to see us? Now those Sinhalese people are being intimidated on social media for showing us compassion,” Vivekanandan said.

They come only for votes

Another resident of Keppapilavu hit out at politicians, especially those in the Government who sought their votes, but are nowhere to be seen in a time of crisis.

Elizabeth (63) questioned how one can remain silent when, not just men, but women are being forced to eat and sleep on the street.

“We are not asking for what belongs to Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe, or Mahinda Rajapaksa. We are asking for our own property back. We are asking for what is rightfully ours. Come elections, they will ask for our votes, we will then see what happens,” an emotional Elizabeth said.
Vivekanandan said that even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was not showing as much interest in their issue as they did when the protest began.

He also said that their concerns were taken to the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein through a petition, but to no avail.

Over 25 years in temporary shelters

The residents of Keppapilavu are not the only ones demanding their land back. Several families still remain locked out of their properties in the North.

President Maithripala Sirisena promised to release most of the land by 31 December last year. However, while the deadline has passed, some of it was eventually released last month.

Among the property still occupied by the military in the North includes land in Kankesanturai, which can be seen fenced with old, damaged houses remaining inside.

On the way to Kankesanturai is Chunnakam, and on Sabapathipillai Road in Chunnakam is a temporary camp site housing several war displaced families for around 26 years.

Most of the families at the Sabapathipillai refugee camp are from Myliddy. They said that while part of the land, which was occupied by the military during the war, had since been released, more remained in military custody.
They said that at the start, the Government and humanitarian agencies gave them assistance, but now there is little to no help.
The Sabapathipillai refugee camp is located on private land and the property owner has also now expressed his intention to take the land back.

The conditions under which the families are living are deplorable, with poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water. There are just 18 toilets for around 150 families at the camp – including several children – and these families need to stand in a queue to use the toilets in the morning.

Santhiran, a resident of the camp, said that despite being refugees, they needed to earn their living and pay the normal rates for water and electricity with no assistance on concession offered by the authorities.
At least two families had been without electricity for around one year, as they could not pay the electricity bills.

Children among the suffering

“In those two houses, there are schooling children, and their education has been affected as they cannot study at night,” Santhiran said pointing at one of the homes.

He said that some authorities visited the camp and gave gifts, including money, to purchase school books for only a few children.

She said that some families with children who are not attending school anymore were given funds to purchase books, but not those who really needed it.

“Several children here are suffering a lot. Their parents cannot afford to get them books, pay their tuition fees and even get them proper clothes,” Santhiran said.

One displaced woman, who did not wish to be identified, said that the children could not even go to school, which is a fair distance from the camp, as they did not have bicycles and could not afford public transport.

Vaseekaran Sayandani was forced to stay in a makeshift hut with her family which includes her 10-month-old infant and seven-year-old child.

Sayandani lives in Iranamadu, Kilinochchi, on land owned by her parents. She was displaced during the war and returned to the property after the conflict.

While her mother has a house on the same land, after marriage, Sayandani chose to stay in the hut with her family.
The Government has initiated a housing project for the war displaced while India also initiated a mega housing project in the North.

Sayandani said that she applied to obtain a house under the Government-sponsored housing project five years ago, but to date, she had not received a favourable response.
“Even today, the authorities came this way and said that we will get the house, but I have no faith in what they say anymore,” she said.

Her father allocated part of the land where the hut is situated to her and she hoped that if water from the Iranamadu Tank was directed to the land, her husband would be able to cultivate vegetables on it.
Culverts are built in the area to direct water to farmlands from the Iranamadu Tank, but the project seems far from over.

“If the project actually moves forward, then we will use the land to grow vegetables and earn a better living,” she said.

Sayandani said that her husband was a three-wheeler driver, but his income was insufficient to ensure all the needs of the family were met.

Muslim returnees feel ignored

While the people of Keppapilavu – Sayandani and those in the Sabapathipillai refugee camp – are all fighting for their land to be returned and to have a house to live in, Muslims evicted by the LTTE in 1990 feel their plight has become an afterthought.

Over 70,000 Muslims were evicted from the North by the LTTE in 1990. The Muslims in Jaffna were given two hours to leave.

Most of them fled to Puttalam and settled down there. But many wanted to return to Jaffna, and when the opportunity arose, most of them did. However, failure by the authorities to set free most of the land owned by the Muslims prevented several of them from returning, as there was no place to settle down in.
B.S.M. Sarafull Anaam, a former Jaffna Municipal Council member, said that most of the Muslims who fled Jaffna were keen to return but had no land or houses to return to.

He said that the Muslims had no voice in the North, as the TNA only raised issues faced by the Tamils in Parliament.

As a result, local Muslim civil society and one Jaffna Municipal Council member have been pushing the authorities to release the land owned by the Muslims in Jaffna or to allocate houses under the Government-sponsored housing scheme for the war displaced.

“We have raised our issue with the Government, parliamentarians, and even the UN Human Rights High Commissioner through a petition; yet nothing has been done,” he said.

Anaam said that while Muslims displaced from Mannar have been given houses by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, the Muslims displaced in Jaffna had been given stepmotherly treatment.

“Minister Bathiudeen is doing a lot for the Muslims in Mannar as that is where his voter base is, but we have been ignored,” he said.

While a large number of Muslims had been forced out of the North during the war, their families had since grown, and Anaam stated that giving their land back was the only way they could move forward.
Some families had been told they would be given land in Jaffna, only if they came and settled down in Jaffna with their families.

Anaam said that around 850 Muslim families had returned to Jaffna and registered as residents of Jaffna, but only 575 families remained, as the rest had left because they could not reclaim their properties from the authorities.

President of the Jaffna/Kilinochchi Muslim Federation Al Haj A.H. Jamal Mohideen alleged that, while the Government was rushing to give houses for the displaced Tamils, most of the houses were not occupied.

“We have even taken video recordings to prove that these houses are not occupied and are under lock and key when several displaced Muslims have no homes to return to,” he said.
Mohideen said that the Tamils and Muslims in Jaffna have a very good relationship, but it was the authorities that put a strain on that relationship by not welcoming the Muslims back into Jaffna with open arms.

He said that while the LTTE evicted the Muslims in Jaffna in 1990 for no reason, the authorities were also now looking to evict the Muslims from Jaffna.

Anaam said that the Muslims in Jaffna have different political ambitions, yet they are united in the push to ensure that the land issue is resolved.

Meanwhile, United National Party Parliamentarian Angajan Ramanathan assured that he will speak with President Maithripala Sirisena and attempt to secure the release of private land occupied by the military in the North

The military, meanwhile said that it has already released several acres of land not required for national security and will release more in line with the directives issued by the President and Army Commander.

Photos Indika Handuwala