By Zarah Imtiaz/Daily News
To a refugee, returning home is a lifelong dream and an end to his or her life in limbo, but for many Sri Lankan refugees returning from Tamil Nadu in the last eight years since the end of the war, coming home has been a bitter-sweet experience filled with both regret as well as hope.
Sivakumar, 39, his wife and three young children returned to the village of Krishnapuram in Kilinochchi along with 35 other families in August last year. He brought his brother and his family along with him and the two families today share a small home with their younger brother and wife. The latter works as a de-mining officer and his wife is attached to the Civil Defense Force; neither earn much to support all. Soon the returnee families would have to build their own homes.
“We thought that we would come back to our own place as soon as things got calmer,” said Sivakumar but has now started to question his move with no house to stay in or income to survive in his homeland.
During his stay in India, he was trained as an electrician but his status as a refugee meant that he could not be employed full time anywhere. “It is normal that those who protect us, impose certain restrictions on our freedom for our own safety,” said Sivakumar who took a boat to India in 1990 to flee from the war.
Living among 100 Sri Lankan families in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu, he met and married 35-year-old Denise Stellar. “We have been looking for work for the last two months but have found none,” said Stellar. Sivakumar cannot practice as an electrician without a National Vocational Training certificate and hasn’t taken steps yet to register for one.
They are being helped by the Chennai based NGO; Organization for Elangai Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) where most of the staff themselves were refugees.
OfERR Project Officer, Reginald Charles who works with Sivakumar noted that many refugees go through a period of withdrawal soon after their return. “Five months ago, Sivakumar was quite depressed and they were regretting returning. But in the last two days, his spirits have picked up and he says he should have returned two years ago so that he could have built something solid by now,” explained Charles.
The main reason for such optimism is that they found out that their father had left them some land they could cultivate on. The children who were never farmers however have had to learn fast.
OfERR which commenced operations in 1984 looked after over 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who fled to Tamil Nadu after the ethnic riots in 1983. In 2004, they set up a branch in Sri Lanka under S. Sooriyakumari to help those affected by the Tsunami. The NGO has been acting as a liaison between the government and recent returnees, helping them settle in and restart their lives.
According to Charles, around 65,000 people still reside in camps in Tamil Nadu while there are another 35,000 people who live outside the camps.
“We have 487 returnee families in Kilinochchi and OfERR has worked with around 300 families,” said Charles. The returnees are spread out in six districts in the North. Close to 381 families live in Mullaitivu while there are another 4,144 families in Jaffna.
“We study and identify their needs and then link them to necessary services. We also collect valuable data on them,” said Charles.
To those who have returned after 30 years of exile, a lot has changed and at times, their country of refuge is more home to them than their own land. Former refugee and staffer at OfERR, Tharmaratnam Sajikaran knows all too well the struggles of settling in. “It is not easy to immediately change your mindset when you leave the camp. Food and shelter was always provided and everything you needed was close by. For 25 years everything was looked after by the camp,” he said.
“Here the hospitals are far away, buses are not frequent and there is very little to do,” added Sajikaran who had fled to India in 1998.
In camp he studied for his university degrees in Computer Science and Sociology, and thereafter joined ofERR and returned to Sri Lanka in 2012. According to Sajikaran, the government of India opened up higher education facilities for the refugees a few years after settlement and today there are around 4,000 graduates living in camps. “Most have resorted to be day labourers as we cannot find permanent jobs,” he said. Some have thus returned and in Vavuniya there are around 35 Indian qualified graduates.
“Many are hesitant to come back. They are treated better than the locals there and they are not sure of the conditions here. If they are certain that things are good here, they will return. But at the same time, one cannot expect to have everything for you here as soon as you return,” said Sajikaran who is working to convince many others to return home.
In time, many learn to adapt, as 36-year-old Selvakumar Chandrawadana, a mother of two young boys has proven. Her family returned to Sri Lanka in 2004 during the Cease Fire which did not last long and was soon caught up in the midst of another war,
“We came back because we thought of our children’s futures. Even if they studied at university, they would not be able to get a permanent job there,” she said. They spent the next six years shifting from one camp to another until they got their own land in Kilinochchi in 2010.
“I did not have anything to start with,” said Chandrawadana who with much perseverance received a bank loan of Rs 90,000 to start her own tailoring shop having been trained in tailoring in India. Today her husband drives a threewheeler and she is a successful entrepreneur employing two other women under her.
“The only problems I have now are settling my loans. I have to work and pay them, my only wish is that I don’t get sick,” she said as she looks to expand her business further.
As one lives in a foreign land for over 25 years, bonds, apart from economic are also likely to be formed. Mutthaiyah Veluayuthapillai, a 65-year-old who returned to Sri Lanka in 2013, having left in 1990, had his daughter marry an Indian national much to his disapproval. “At the start I was apprehensive because you hear so many stories of Indian men treating their women badly. Their culture is also not similar to ours,” he said. He is not alone in his apprehension but many second generation refugees, born in camps, have taken a greater liking to their adopted cultures than their own. His daughter having returned with him, has applied for a spousal visa to return to India.
“We lived well there. I also had four milking cows and I used to sell milk to the locals there. Many there asked us why we wanted to come back, but I told them that we were returning to our own land and the children want to see their country,” said Mutthaiyah who has five kids. One of his sons migrated to Switzerland and has helped him resettle. Today he has built a small home in Perandan Nagaram in Killinochchi and tends to his paddy fields.
Similar to many of the returnees, Mutthaiyah laments that he had to struggle on his own with some assistance from his family and friends to resettle in Sri Lanka. “The government has not helped us much,” he said, a sentiment echoed by many others.
No government assistance
Sajikaran explained that while there were some Grama Niladhari or local government officials who were attentive to the needs of the people, many did not know much about the people they were supposed to serve. In addition, the government also had certain schemes and criteria when it came to providing assistance and it was thus not easy for them to adapt to changing needs.
“It is only in the last six months that the Ministry of Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms started giving 35 houses to returnees, but there is no proper resettlement scheme for them as soon as they come back. People cannot always live with their relatives, especially for an extended period of time which invariably result in family issues,” added Sajikaran.
Many of the returnees are also not aware of the manner in which the system works in the country. “There are several schemes that are available at the local government level to help the poor but many are not aware of it,” said Sajikaran who spent six months after his return to study the entire system of governance in the country.
OfERR has thus set up ‘welcome groups’ in every Grama Niladhari division where returnees reside in, which consists of the Grama Sevaka of the area, rural development society member, women’s development society member, people from civil society and farmers associations to help the returnees settle in. They also inform OfERR when a new family from Tamil Nadu comes into their area so that assistance can be offered to them quickly.
Sajikaran observed that while many refugees may feel that their government has let them down, compared to the Indian counterpart, even those living here feel the same. “Everyone is in the same boat. Those who are living here also have the same problems. They say, ‘we too have suffered, so why is it that those who have left get treated better?’ Also I may have many problems, but for the government, I am just one among 25 other affected families in the village,” he said.
Many returnees have also started to feel local resentment building up against them. Poovalasingham Sivabalasingham, 42, who lives in Mullivaikal, Mullaitivu is frustrated that none of his immediate family or neighbours have helped him, his wife and six children since their return in 2014.
“We thought that our family was here and that we needed to come back. At first they all came for the money the UNHCR gave us as soon as we returned. But now they have all disappeared and no one is here to help,” said Poovalasingham as he struggles to make a living once again while constructing a home for the family.
“The war and the Tsunami has changed people, they have become so heartless, this place was much warmer and friendly when we left in 2000,” added his wife Sivalakshmi, 41. She is under greater strain having to manage six young boys with no assistance. At camp, there were day care centres and schools close by which provided meals and fellow refugees close at hand to babysit. Here they are on their own in the former war zone. They are yet to get the birth certificates of four of their children sorted.
Poovalasingham’s regret of returning is also shared by Anthonypillai 31-year-old Amarithadasan who is looking to migrate to the West at any cost. Having left Sri Lankan when he was three, he returned in 2004, at 18 to face both the Tsunami and the war.
“I came back carefree at 18 not knowing anything. It is after I came back that I got to know of the Tamil struggle and we faced the worst of it,” he recalled. Anthonypillai having married a local, had also helped the LTTE out with minor tasks. “There is no one here who hasn’t helped, as not many had a choice,” he said. But this got him marked as an LTTE cadre and in 2009 the family fled to India to avoid military interrogation. In 2011 they returned to look after the remaining members of his wife’s family.
“I am always under watch by the military and I fear for my life. In the last two years, there have been no problems but I am scared that they would make me disappear. I wanted to leave for Switzerland but the agent who promised me passage took my money and disappeared,” said Anthonypillai who has not been able to recover from his trauma. He is trained as a painter but has not been able to find much work given the competition from local painters.
As Anthonypillai looks to flee Lankan shores once again, Mutthaiyah said, “When I visited Tamil Nadu, I told them, come back or they will take away your land and land prices will go up, making it harder for you to buy a new one. Get back your land first, start now before it is too late.” Sitting under the shade of his coconut tree, Mutthaiyah watched his lush paddy field with satisfaction. He is content having returned home after 23 years.
“It is difficult to come back but not impossible,” he said as he leaned back in his chair enjoying the warm breeze of his homeland.
(The featured picture at the top shows Sri Lankan refugees returning to Sri Lanka by ferry)