One year is a long time to sustain a street protest. Taking turns, a group of people from Keppapilavu in Sri Lanka’s northern Mullaitivu district has stayed put under a roadside tent, asking the government to return their land which is under military occupation.
“We are determined to continue our struggle until there is justice,” said S. Chandraleela, one of the protesters, at a recent meeting held on the 365th day of their agitation. To them, a year is no more than a marker of time. Getting back to their land is the only milestone that matters.
Mostly women, the protesters spend hours together on the site, cooking for the entire group there, managing their toddlers in the sweltering heat and waiting with hope. The men work for daily wages so that the families can survive.
Over the last two years, the Maithripala Sirisena-led government has handed over about 8,500 acres of military occupied land to civilians. But the exercise is far from complete, with hundreds of war-displaced families awaiting the release of their land eight years after the war ended.
“Whether it is here or in other parts where the military is still holding on to our land, the areas are rich in natural resources. From small-scale fishing to coconut plantations to jack trees, you can make some good money. May be that is why the Army doesn’t want to part with the land,” Ms. Chandraleela said. Her own home, now occupied by an Army officer, is close to the Nandikadal lagoon, where families like hers lived for generations, living off the yield in their backyard.
Adjacent to their protest site is a huge arch with the words ‘Security Force Headquarters, Mullaitivu’ embossed on it, leading to the village. On one side of the tar road that neatly bifurcates the area are plots of land that were recently returned to the owners.
“We had about 13 coconut trees and a huge mango tree. We cultivated paddy in that land behind. Now, all that we own is that,” said S. Balraj, pointing to a few aluminium pots and plastic cups washed and kept overturned to dry in the sun. Barring a few trees that have survived years of strife, there is no trace of his home. With little choice, he and his wife live in a small house built and used by the military on his plot. In his late 60s and frail, he now spends hours daily, slowly clearing the bush-infested land behind his ‘home’, all by himself. On the other side is an Army camp, fenced with barbed wire, and spanning a vast area. Some grey-uniformed officers walk around amidst a splash of pink from rows of well-nourished bougainvillea plants. The homes of the people protesting outside were once located here.
When the original owners return to their land, a new set of challenges emerge, as Mr. Balraj or the residents of the nearby Pilakkudiyiruppu village, who moved in one year ago, found out. With no state support yet for building new homes or toilets, many families in the village live in tin-sheet-walled, thatch-roofed temporary dwellings. This, according to authorities, is the plight of 12,882 resettled people in Mullaitivu district, who need new homes.
From the government’s point of view, it has released much of the land, allocated millions of rupees for resettlement and promised new housing in phases. Like many official claims, this too seems far-removed from the reality on the ground. If one asks any of the families that have relocated, they will say how unsettled they continue to feel.