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Former rebel capital struggles with returnee influx

Returnees to Kilinochi say life is  a daily struggle. Thousands have returned to the former rebel capital in northern Sri Lanka
(Udara Soysa/IRIN)

The northern Sri Lankan town of Kilinochchi – former capital of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – is struggling to address the needs of thousands of returnees.

According to Sri Lankan military officials, more than 24,000 people or close to 30 percent of the town’s original population have returned since December – many of whom are living in tents.

Aid agencies pulled out of the town in September 2008 as the decades-long conflict intensified.

The Sri Lankan Army successfully captured the political headquarters of the LTTE in Kilinochchi in January 2009.

“This was an unparalleled victory," President Mahinda Rajapakse said at the time.

"Kilinochchi was the capital of a state dreamt of by a terrorist organization. It will no longer be available to them. We should pay the gratitude of the whole nation to those heroic soldiers who achieved that victory."

But 10 months since the government declared final victory over the LTTE in May 2009, Kilinochchi is grappling with an influx of returnees.

Before 2008, more than 90,000 people lived in the town, accessible through the strategic A-9 highway than runs between Kandy and Jaffna.

According to military officials from the Sri Lankan 57th Division, the town was completely evacuated during the Kilinochchi offensive, while much of the infrastructure - including schools, hospitals, water and electricity supplies - was badly damaged or destroyed, with nearly 80 percent of all homes affected.

A family outside their makeshift shelter in Kilinochi

Udara Soysa/IRIN
A family outside their makeshift shelter in Kilinochi
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
NGOs question tighter access to Sri Lanka's north...
A family outside their makeshift shelter in Kilinochi

Photo: Udara Soysa/IRIN
A family outside their home in Kilinochchi. Many residents use the tarpaulins provided to cover their homes

“The Tigers destroyed the town when they were retreating,” a senior military official claimed.

Thousands of residents fled the city en masse in the conflict’s final days, only to find themselves in displaced people’s camps in the town of Vavuniya or elsewhere.

Repairing the damage

But since the government decision to allow residents to return to their places of origin, ensuring quality returns over quantity is also proving a major challenge.

“Lack of proper housing and water facilities is a major problem,” one local aid worker in Kilinochchi, who asked not to be identified, told IRIN.

Many homes were damaged, leaving occupants particularly vulnerable to the southwest monsoon rains, which begin in June and run to October.

“Our makeshift houses lack proper roofs,” Kumari Devarasa, a housewife who resettled last month, told IRIN. “The houses lack basic toilet, water and electricity facilities. It’s a very hard life.”

Residents say the government has provided assistance, including wood, to build and repair their homes, while others continue to live in tents provided by NGOs or have covered their shelters with tarpaulins.

Others still complain about access to health and education.

Many returnees to Kilinochi now live in tents

Udara Soysa/IRIN
Many returnees to Kilinochi now live in tents
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Former rebel capital struggles with returnee influx
Many returnees to Kilinochi now live in tents

Photo: Udara Soysa/IRIN
Many returnees now live in tents

Livelihood concerns

“We don’t have proper jobs,” Nalini Jabesan. “We live from random amounts/stipends that the government gives us and doing odd jobs.”

David Sivasundaram, a shop owner who resettled last month, described life as “a daily struggle”.

“I don’t think the government has enough money to help us on a large scale,” he said, repairing the war damage to his shop. “Where can they find money?”

“I have many complaints, but right now I don’t want to say this is somebody’s fault. Whatever the situation is, we have to fight ourselves for a better life,” another returnee said.

UN aid agencies are gearing up to assist the government in the resettlement process, including food, emergency education, shelter, health and access to safe drinking water.

According to the UN, more than 185,000 have returned to their homes or are staying with host families since the return process began, while some 93,000 continue to live in camps, the vast majority in and around the town of Vavuniya, northern province.


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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