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News Features


Batticaloa: Where the fish don’t sing no more

Vasanthi Nirmalan (34), a government teacher, also from Mutur, says she and her family will never return to Mutur until normalcy is restored.
“We have suffered enough. We can’t suffer anymore. The government must give us an assurance that we could settle down peacefully in our own land. Till then we will not return,” she observed.

Text and pictures by Wilson Gnanadass from Batticaloa
Vakarai is gradually limping back to normalcy. Tens and thousands of people, who became refugees overnight, after government troops forced them to flee the LTTE areas, are now relieved.
They do not hear the sound of bombs and Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) anymore. Quietly spending their time in government camps, reflecting on incidents of the recent past.
The government’s ultimate aim is to fully rehabilitate Vakarai and make it a model village, for the benefit of the people.
Government troops on the other hand, are effectively handling the sudden influx of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Unlike in the past, the refugees have little complaints against the conduct of the armed forces, with more than a few exceptions, of course.
However, their anger is against the government’s grandiose pronouncement that 95% of the Batticaloa district is liberated. Batticaloa residents view this statement as a gross exaggeration. But there is an element of truth in the government’s claim, as most of the uncleared areas have been captured by government troops.
Bare lands may be liberated but, question is, whether the people have been liberated from their suffering.
If the IDPs in Vakarai are able to heave a sigh of relief, not everybody in the district was able to do so, especially, not those in Batticaloa town.

Lack of political leadership
Batticaloa now is devoid of political leadership. This situation may have arisen after the brutal assassination of former TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham. The residents sadly miss the Pararajasingham duo even today, saying that political leadership in the district died with his demise.
Batticaloa district Members of Parliament, D. Ariyanethiran, K. Thanngeswari, T. Kanagasabai, and S. Tiyanandamoorthy have been strictly warned by Karuna to resign from their parliamentary seats. In his latest warning, Karuna has said that these members have done little to help the influx of refugees, hence, their presence is of no use.
The civilians of Batticaloa too echoed sentiments similar to those of Karuna, saying that the MPs had shown scant concern to their suffering.

Effects of war on Batti town
The town, unusually, was replete with the sounds of aerial bombardments, though, with less military checks. At regular intervals the town reverberated to the firing of artillery shells. The continuous bombing targeted the uncleared areas.
Civilians concerned of this development said that this situation could change the topography of Batticaloa soon, if both the government troops and the LTTE continued to fight with no respite.
They were of the view that the war perhaps, could even have an impact on the demography, if no meaningful steps were taken forthwith, to stop fighting and return to negotiations.
Already, 38% of the Batticaloa population, according to government statistics, are IDPs, with the figure likely to swell and by the prolongation of the war.
Residents caught in between LTTE controlled areas and the army bases are not certain when they too would be forced to flee their homes and become refugees.
Uncertainty, coupled with tension, certainly gives the town and its suburbs an eerie ambience.
From the time government troops decided to take control of Vakarai, Batticaloa residents have been facing untold hardship.
They suffer silently, fearing the warring parties, with Karuna compounding those fears.
Traders paying taxes to the government, are now compelled to pay taxes to the ‘Karuna’ group as well. Notwithstanding the soaring cost of living. They are unable to desist from paying the ‘Karuna’ group because it enjoys government patronage.
At present 120,000 people are IDPs and are languishing in makeshift camps in the suburbs of Batticaloa.

Plight of IDPs
The plight of the IDPs is a matter of serious concern as, they continue to face harassment from the armed troops and other paramilitary groups as well.
In the early hours of March 15, the Special Task Force (STF) arrested two civilians at the Pattirippu bridge in Kaluwanchikudi. The two civilians Ganeshalingam Chandrakumar (17), a student from Periyapurathivu and Govindasamy Thavarajah (32) from Kovilpurathivu, were travelling from the LTTE controlled area towards the army controlled area, when they were arrested. Later, on March 19, following a clash between the army and the LTTE at Wellaweli, the military reported killing four LTTE cadres.
However, out of the four bodies claimed to be LTTE cadres, two were identified as Chandrakumar (17) and Thavarajah (32). Aid workers confirmed that these two were the ones arrested by the STF on March 15.
The LTTE, subsequently, refused to accept the bodies saying they were not their cadres.
Prior to this incident, three young IDPs had allegedly been abducted by the ‘Karuna, group, according to a complaint filed by the parents of the abductees.
Nandagopal Nadanaruban (14), Rasaratnam Pirapakaran (16) and Selvarajah Danuseelan (14) were forced to flee Mavadichanai in Mutur, along with thousands of other refugees.
They had been living at the Kirimuthu IDP camp in Batticaloa. On March 9, the three boys had been relaxing on the roadside after their midday meal, when a group claiming to belong to the TMVP had taken them away.
Consequently, the parents had lodged an entry with the Human Rights Commission in Batticaloa, but to no avail.
These unexpected developments terrorise the refugees further.
Back in the camps situated in Batticala, the refugees are given two kilos of flour, two kilos of rice, half-a-kilo of dhal and one kilo of sugar every 15 days. The refugees complain that these quantities are insufficient. They point out that the government is preventing some of the INGOs and NGOs from helping them with the food supply.
“When we ask the NGOs for food, they say that the government does not permit them to give any food,” refugees from Sahira IDP camp in Vettukadu said.
These people were displaced from Mutur and brought to Batticaloa on August 22, 2006. Yet, according to the refugees, to date, neither the Government Agent nor the MPs of the area, have visited them.
According to Kandiah, an IDP from Mutur, the army had taken nearly 1,500 people from the camp to the north, promising to resettle them in their homes.
“But, we know that these people have still not arrived at their homes. We also know that the army took them by force and left them in unknown places. This worries us,” he said.
He also said that the belongings of the Mutur residents, now IDPs in Batticaloa, had been looted and no way to regain them, even if the IDPs were sent back to Mutur.
Vasanthi Nirmalan (34), a government teacher, also from Mutur, says she and her family will never return to Mutur until normalcy is restored.
“We have suffered enough. We can’t suffer anymore. The government must give us an assurance that we could settle down peacefully in our own land. Till then we will not return,” she observed.

Refugees flee to India
Unable to bear the suffering, some refugees have opted to flee to neighbouring India for safety.
Thavamanidevi (44) is a mother of three. Today, she laments that she has lost contact with her eldest son, who courageously took off with his family to India last October,.
“We still do not know of their plight. When we told him not to go, he told us if he stayed here, he would either be killed by the armed forces or, be abducted by the paramilitary. Hence, the only alternative is for him to get out of the country,” she said.
Like her, Pakkiawathy (40) too worries about her sister’s plight, since she has not heard from her sister about her arrival and safety, after she fled to India last year with her four children.
“This is a constant headache for me and my other family members. Why can’t we have peace in Sri Lanka, since she has not heard from her sister about her arrival and safety so that we all can live here happily,” she queried.
According to reports submitted to the local political office in Batticaloa on March 7, 103 families (777 people) from Batticaloa refugee camps were forcibly taken to Vakarai, by the security forces.
On March 13, about 1,106 people from the Palachcholai refugee camp in Siththandi, were taken in 30 buses to Kilivetty in Trincomalee, by the security forces.
On March 14, again, the security forces took about 120 people in two busses from Valachchenai to Mutur.

Disappointed
By and large, the refugees are disappointed with their own political leaders. They said that when they were asked to leave their homes without any prior notice, the politicians who are supposed to represent them in Parliament, were helpless.
Even the ‘Karuna’ faction or the LTTE did nothing to prevent a section of the security forces drom carting away their goods,.
They pointed out that the government, the LTTE and the ‘Karuna’ faction were not sincere about the welfare of the IDPs, they were fighting only for their own survival.

Muslim Help
In the backdrop of this scenario, a section of the Muslim community is rising to the occasion, to lend a helping hand to the Tamil refugees. There is a sudden surge of compassion and understanding between these two communities as a result of this.
The campaign to help the Tamil refugees is spearheaded by K.M.M. Kaleel, a leading trader from Kathankudi. He is also the Coordinator of the Muslim Traders’ Association in Batticaloa.
Kaleel told The Nation that it was ‘cheap politics’ in the country that divided communities. If the affected communities so desired, they could ignore the politics and shake hands.
He said he asked every Muslim to contribute Rs.100 to help the IDPs. He said, to date, the Muslims have collected a sum of Rs. 1.7 million.
10,000 food parcels per day, have been distributed to the IDPs for five consecutive days. According to Kaleel, 750 kilos of fish had been cooked every day to feed the Tamil IDPs.
He also said that Muslim youths were running two camps at Arayampathu and Karbala in the Batticaloa district to look after the Tamil refugees.
He further added that Risla Media World and All Ceylon Jamath Islamic Organisation in Kathankudi were conducting an ongoing medical camp for the IDPs.
He said that for the first time his organization has established a rapport with the Hindu Association in Batticaloa, and that both organisations were helping the IDPs.
Kaleel pointed out that the language of the Muslims in the east was Tamil, hence, they cannot be separated from the Tamils who also spoke Tamil. “I do not see any difference between the Tamils and the Muslims. Only our religion is different. So why can’t we live together,” he questioned.

First-hand experience of MBRL
Sunday, March 24 was like any other day. The sky was clear, the atmosphere dark. Silence pervaded the city of Batticaloa, except for the sound of random shell attacks.
The residents, quite used to the sounds of war, retired for the night. Monday, March 25, 3.15 a.m. Suddenly, Batticaloa town was rocked by a barrage from MBRLs. Buildings and houses shook to their foundations.
Many were thrown out of their beds. Those living near Weber Stadium could view the volume of fire emerging from the MBRL. There were seven in a row and at that moment three to four rows were fired in one go.
Some of the windows of the houses nearby were shattered.
Though it was dark the rockets fired from the stadium lit the whole town.
The residents awoke in shock and awe and lay still. Cries of Children crying in fear was heard just once. Even stray dogs, which usually barked at sounds in the nights, were silent.
Within seconds the firing stopped, while a flash lingered for a few more minutes at the base where the MBRLs were fired from, until the city regained its nightly silence.
Soon, it became known that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) Air Force had, for the first time, carried out an air raid on the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Katunayake.
To the average citizens of Batticaloa that was the end of their sleep. Telephones started ringing. People started to inquire from each other to find out who was dead and who was alive.

Batti then and now
Batticaloa, once considered the land of the ‘Singing Fish’, today, is a war torn city.
Two decades ago, Passikkuda attracted thousands of foreign and local tourists. Calm seas and clean beaches were reasons for the outsiders to throng the east. The economy of the eastern capital depended on beaches and coconuts. Unfortunately, today, the same beaches and even the coconut estates, are laden with landmines.
The war that slowly moved towards the east, especially, after Karuna defected from the LTTE, has desecrated the pristine beauty of Batticaloa.
The peace loving people of Batticalao yearn for peace. They wonder whether Mahinda Chinthana could usher in that peace.

***

Bishop of Batticaloa-Trincomalee Rt. Rev. Dr. Kingsley Swamipillai.

“The refugee situation is somewhat under control now. In Vakarai, the situation is improving.
“I visited Vakarai last week and was glad to see the people being fed by the government.
“I am quite satisfied with the work being done by the government officials at present. However, we must be mindful of the rainy season. The people cannot live in camps right along. They have to return to their homes. “The government must also ensure that these people are taken back to their own homes soon. Right now we see the Vakarai refugees being treated well. This should not stop here.
“Batticaloa has become the hosting region for these displaced. Fortunately, this side of the land is liberated, so that, when people are forced to flee uncleared areas, they are able to seek refuge in these areas.”

***

The campaign by the Muslims to help the Tamil refugees is spearheaded by K.M.M. Kaleel, a leading trader from Kathankudi. He is also the Coordinator of the Muslim Traders’ Association in Batticaloa.
Kaleel told The Nation that it was ‘cheap politics’ in the country that divided communities. If the affected communities so desired, they could ignore the politics and shake hands.
Kaleel pointed out that the language of the Muslims in the east was Tamil, hence, they cannot be separated from the Tamils who also spoke Tamil. “I do not see any difference between the Tamils and the Muslims. Only our religion is different. So why can’t we live together,” he questioned.

***

Minister of Resettlement & Disaster Relief Services, Rishard Badurdeen

The minister conceded forceful resettlement, adding that this had been brought under control.
“Now it has stopped. We have undertaken the task of resettling the people. This incident took place when the influx of refugees could not be handled by the government forces.
“Now our ministry officials are doing this. We will not allow this to happen again. We have given the people the assurance that they will be taken back to their own homes.
“We are sending enough food through the Government Agent. We are also in touch with the international community seeking help to feed the IDPs.”

**

Government Agent, Batticaloa, S. Arumainayagam

The Government Agent too told The Nation that there was no forcible resettlement taking place at present.
He said that it did take place at one point but, after the government came to be aware of it, the situation was brought under control.
“I have given clear instructions that there should not be any forcible resettlement. In fact, my officers are working round the clock to ensure the refugees are protected,” he said.