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War displaced start to pick up the pieces

Vasanthi Kumari, 21, is happy to back home in Puliyankulam, but huge challenges remain. She spent months living at the Menik Farm IDP camp in Vavuniya

About a year ago, civil war raged around Vasanthi Kumari's house in northern Sri Lanka. "There was a loud sound and `Appa' [father] went out," Kumari, 21, told IRIN.

"That was the last time we saw him alive." Because of the danger, she said, the family could not even bury him properly. "We just dug a hole and put him there."

She, her parents and her brother lived in Puliyankulam, a village on the A9 highway, which was at the frontline in the last weeks of the more than two-decade long conflict.

After her father's death she said the family fled deeper into rebel-controlled areas, before fleeing southwards into government-controlled areas in April 2009.

There they lived in one of more than a dozen government camps set up for over 280,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the northern town of Vavuniya, before returning to their home in January 2010.

Standing in front of her mud-walled hut, the newly married Kumari said she was happy: "It is enough that we can live without fear, without the fear of getting killed," she told IRIN.

Her new husband, whom she met at Menik Farm - the largest IDP camp in mid-2009 with over 240,000 people - is a farmer, but is yet to get to work.

"Some of the fields still have mines; others are cleared but we don't have seed paddy or fertilizer," Kumari said.

Returnees like Kumari say one of their biggest needs is shelter. When she returned to her former house Kumari found only a pile of bricks. "Everything was gone," she said.

Photo: OCHA
Thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians fled the fighting along the A9 highway in Sri Lanka's Vanni area

She received metal sheeting when she returned and has put up a temporary mud hut.

"Because we are a new family, we will have to apply for everything anew," she said. Her mother and brother live in a similar house nearby. Other returnees say life back in the home village, despite many limitations, was preferable to living in the camps: "Life is hard here, but in the camps we could not leave; we had problems with toilets and bathing. Now we have more freedom," anotehr returnee said.

According to a 15 January joint inter-agency report "a large percentage of the permanent housing in the return areas is severely or completely damaged.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) remains the only agency with access for shelter assistance to the return areas, it added. "It is necessary to prioritize the most vulnerable IDPs across the return districts and assist according to capacity."

The report also said there was a lack of basic infrastructure to support health and childcare facilities in remote parts of Vanni, even as some schools were able to reopen.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 158,000 IDPs have returned to their homes since the launch of a government return programme in December. More than 106,000, however, continue to live in camps, mostly in Vavuniya.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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