From 2008 until the war was declared over in May 2009, survivors who often endured continuous combat for weeks while trapped in northern Mullaittivu District told IRIN that when the chance finally came to escape, most left behind all their possessions. “When you run for your life, you don't think of these things,” said Sivaseelan from Puliyankulam village in Vavuniya District, who requested that only his family name be used.
He returned to his home village at the end of 2009 and started re-establishing his identity. Without the right documents Sivaseelan cannot get post-conflict assistance to rebuild his home, enrol a child in school, or vote. “You are like an alien in your own village. You really can’t get anything done officially,” he said.
Government offices like the Registration of Persons Department and the Land Commissioner General's Department began to receive requests from the north in early 2010 for documents to be re-issued.
Most of the requests were submitted in Tamil, the second most commonly used language nationwide, and the primary one spoken in the former conflict zone where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels had been fighting for an independent state for nearly 30 years.
The high volume of applications and a shortage of Tamil-speaking officials in Colombo, the seat of government, some 270km away, created a bottleneck. The UN helped hire retired government staff to ease the congestion, as it had done after the 2004 tsunami when thousands of people lost their documents.
In March 2009, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) launched the Access to Justice Project, in which mobile units staffed by government officials set up temporary offices in remote areas throughout the north. They do not issue the identity papers, which come from the government’s Registration of Persons Department, but they process the paperwork.
The top government official in Kilinochchi District, Roopavathi Ketheeswaran, said the mobile service has made the whole process of re-issuing paperwork much easier, especially for those who have returned to villages with destroyed transport infrastructure.
The most sought-after documents are national identity cards. UNDP has helped digitize personal registries for Mullaittivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar districts where war-time destruction was most severe.
Returnees who want to build homes, either with assistance or bank loans, also need land registration documents. “For those requiring assistance for housing, proof of land ownership is often essential,” noted the UNDP office in Colombo.
However, deeds and other registration documents are the most difficult to reissue, as they require checking with national and regional registries. Several people, none of whom are the original owners, often claim the same unoccupied land, but people must have the deeds if they want to get a loan from the bank, Ketheeswaran told IRIN.
More than 100,000 persons seeking documentation were served up until April 2012. The service is expected to continue until the end of 2012, with a new phase starting in early 2013.
“Ensuring equal access to justice is important for people to have their voices heard, to exercise their rights, to challenge discrimination, and to hold decision-makers accountable,” the UNDP office in Sri Lanka told IRIN in an emailed statement.