HSZ renders Jaffna IDPs in vulnerable position
31 October 2002, Northeastern Herald
A US state department official who visited Jaffna after it was
captured by the army said that the peninsula provided a window of
opportunity for reconstruction and development. Even today there is
much hype about rebuilding Chavakachcheri, Jaffna town, improving
telecommunication facilities, roads and tourism in the
north.Thousands of tourists from the south visit Jaffna today.
Ministers and diplomats come and go. New banks and insurance
companies from the south have started business in Jaffna and are
reporting handsome profits already. Business seems to thrive. Flashy
new Indian motorbikes are on the roads everywhere. All this leaves
the impression in one’s mind that Jaffna is almost fine. Little
would the average visitor know that there are thousands of refugees
living in run down refugee camps amid squalor and official
negligence.This is the other side of Jaffna, a reality that the
government pretends not to see.
The ever-flamboyant Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena would rather be seen
walking about Chavakachcheri in the company of diplomats and
obsequious Kachcheri officials.
But the refugees of Jaffna remain a neglected lot. Eight months have
gone by since the ceasefire agreement between the LTTE and the
government was signed, ensuring the suspension of armed hostilities.
There are 113 refugee camps in the Jaffna peninsula. There are more
than 10,000 Internally Displaced Persons comprising 2584 families in
these camps. The government has made little effort to care for these
camps. In fact the government for set few up for the purpose of
IDPs who were forced out of their villages in the northwestern parts
of the peninsula known as Valigamam North between 1990 and 1992 live
in forty-eight camps. The majority of the IDPs in Jaffna are from
this region.They live in 16 refugee shelters in the Uduvil Division,
5 in Tellipalai, 6 in Kopay, 9 in Chandilippai and 4 in Sanganai.
Most of these camps are on private property.There are eight camps
located along the northeastern coast where fisher families that fled
military operations from the coastal villages of Valigamam North
such as Myillidy now eke out a living in run down shelters along the
Pt. Pedro – Thondamanar Road.
The northern part of the Valigamam division was the most populous
part of the peninsula before 1984. Today only soldiers live there.
Scores of villages are no go zones, sown with minefields.
Kankesanthurai, Tellipalai, Vasavilan and Maviddapuram were densely
populated and fast expanding towns before the war began in 1984.
Today they lie within the largest high security zone in the country,
The largest refugee camp for Valigamam north IDPs is the Sabapathy
Welfare Center near the Maruthanamadam junction. There are 185
families living here. The roofs of the shelters in this welfare
center are mostly made of dried Palmyra frond Thatch. The huts have
been built with mud and sticks. The only cement and brick structure
at the welfare center is its church. Although the majority of the
refugees at this camp are Hindus, everyone worships at the Church of
Our Lady of the Rosary. All the refugees here had contributed funds
to build the church.
Our Lady of the Rosary was a church in the Kankesanthurai electorate
where people of all faiths worshipped. It is partly destroyed and
stands derelict in the Sri Lanka army’s high security zone in
Valigamam north.Hence the decision of the IDPs to build a replica of
it in their camp.
Water is scarce here. There are only four tube wells for the use of
the 185 families in the camp. There is one well in the camp which is
only used for bathing and washing. The water in it is undrinkable.
There are queues in the morning before the tube wells and the sole
water well. Inmates have to take turns to wash and bathe, as the
water supply is woefully inadequate.
Latrine facilities are a nightmare for the people in the Sabapathy
camp. Initially there were 23 latrines in the welfare center. But
only sixteen are usable now. The toilets have to be maintained by
the refugees themselves.“We do minor repairs that we can afford to
prevent the remaining toilets from falling apart. We get no help
from the authorities for the upkeep of the toilets”, says an inmate.
One can see schoolchildren standing in queues in the mornings before
the latrines.The welfare center is on a low-lying, rocky land. The
cesspits for the latrines here were built partly above the ground,
as it had been difficult to dig deep, breaking the rock below the
Heavy rains flood the refugee camp premises. The latrines are
unusable during the rainy season. They cannot be flushed because the
water in the cesspits rises above ground level. Worse, refugees fear
that the excreta from inevitable leaks in the water filled cesspits
is polluting the camp and its shelters.
Even brief showers leave pools of muddy water in the camp.A large
number of Valigamam north refugees fled to the Vanni in 1995 when
the Sri Lanka army was advancing into Jaffna. They have begun
gradually to return to Jaffna since the ceasefire agreement was
signed in February.
These IDPs lament that they made a terrible mistake in deciding to
come back. Thirty Valigamam north refugee families that returned to
Jaffna in August were sent to the Sabapathy Welfare Center. They
have received neither refugee relief nor assistance to put up a
shelter. Some of them have made homes with sticks and old polythene
sheets. The floor space of a temporary shelter in which they now
live is 10 foot wide and twelve foot long.
The refugees of the Sabapathy camp have been on the run for 12
They have moved bag and baggage six times to six different places
since they were rendered refugees in 1990.
The biggest calamity that the Valigamam north refugees face today is
that the owners of the lands on which the Welfare Centers are
situated are demanding that their property should be returned to
The landlords are asking the refugees to leave.The owner of the
‘magistrate camp’ premises in Mallakam has sent legal notice, asking
the refugees to vacate. The Tellipalai Divisional Secretary’s Office
has asked the refugees in this camp to move to another place. It has
asked them to find another place if they are to receive the full
payment from the government to build homes. The D. S office has
granted them 10000 rupees each to build houses. However, it is
stipulated that the full payment of 25,000 rupees per house can be
disbursed only if one builds it on land he/she owns.
“But how can we build on land that is ours. Our lands are in the
high security zones. The army is camped there. How can we go back?”
asks N. Ganeshan the President of the Federation of IDP Welfare
Centers in Jaffna.
“The government is neither giving us money to build nor finding us
alternative but habitable land to own,” he said. The refugees of the
‘magistrate camp’ refused to relocate on the land shown them by the
DS office because it had no access to roads and was in the midst of
an inhospitable shrub jungle.
Eight months of peace has helped reopen two main schools in two
minor sectors of Valigamam north. But refugee children stand little
The Tellipalai Union College and the Vasavilaan Central College are
functioning again. Yet students in the camps who studied in these
schools before they were displaced are unable to go back to their
own schools because they live in distant refugee camps.
The refugees formed their own association in Jaffna to fight for
their welfare and resettlement seven months ago. The organization is
mainly based among the IDPs of Valigamam north.
“Our predicament has been miserable because we have been depending
on others for our welfare. It is time for refugees like us to do
everything possible to demand the return to our lands”, N. Ganeshan
He added that petty crimes and anti-social activities are on the
increase in the welfare centers. Teenage marriages are also common,
according to him.
The refugees were planning to start a campaign to enter their
villages in the high security zones without permission from the
government. The Valigamam north IDPs are the only ones in the
northeast who have not seen their houses and property since they
fled their towns and villages 12 years ago.
However, the LTTE has persuaded them not to start their protest now
on the grounds that their problem would be taken up during peace
talks in Thailand.