The process of resettlement is proceeding apace now, with well over 120,000 persons having gone back to locations in the Northern Province. Of these the more complex returns were to areas previously under the control of the LTTE in sections of Mannar and Vavuniya and in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.
Whilst I had anticipated that the first two areas would be resettled rapidly, I was not so sanguine some months ago about the other districts. However, with the three basic prerequisites for resettlement fulfilled, government was able to move swiftly in those areas too. It is likely then that almost all the remainder in the Welfare Centres, over 80,000, will also go back soon. Indeed even the more than 50,000 who have left the Centres over the last few months, and sought shelter elsewhere, may well decide that they too can go back home, along with the thousands from the Vanni, the so-called old IDPs, who had much earlier sought the safety of government controlled areas in Jaffna and Mannar and Vavuniya.
The first prerequisite was demining, which proceeded swiftly and satisfactorily, once the army was able to turn its full attention to this task, with the acquisition also of expensive but relatively speedy machines. The international agencies, which had been slower earlier, also did their share, and contributed too to mine risk education which has thus far ensured that no accidents have happened. Though full clearance of all areas will take much longer, enough has been done to allow not only return but also space for agriculture and other economic activity. With a fair proportion of the area west of the A9 being cleared, attention can now turn to the less heavily mined areas of Mullaitivu east of the thoroughfare.
The second requirement was security, about which many opinions have been expressed. Initially it seemed to be taking a long time, but conversely there were views expressed that security checking had been inadequate, and that greater care should have been exercised before people were allowed to leave. Government however stuck to its plans, and is thus able, having checked reasonably thoroughly, to move swiftly now and without second thoughts with the resettlement of all those in the Centres. Statistics of those taken out for rehabilitation, or else for further investigation (well under 1000), are also available, while families are able to visit those in rehabilitation – of whom over 700 have already been released to rejoin their families.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, government was determined to restore basic infrastructure in the areas to be resettled. This may have not seemed important to those who knew how little the people in the areas previously under LTTE control had had, but it was a vital aspect of government policy to ensure that communications and basic social services were readily available.
This was perhaps the most heartening part of my recent visit. The road networks were much better than I expected and, having been to Tunnukkai previously, I was able to visit Karachi and Pooneryn and Kiranchi in just a few hours. Schools were functioning in all these areas, with most buildings satisfactorily repaired and adequate complements of teachers in place. Only one school was still dingy and depressing, but that was an old structure and plans were in place to rebuild a newer structure that had suffered more in the conflict. Elsewhere the buildings were bright and shiny – as were the students, whose numbers were increasing daily as parents brought back children who had stayed on in Vavuniya till they were sure schooling would be restored.
The area with the dingy school was the only one in which the people were not happy, though they also noted that the forces, which were helping with the rebuilding, had been very helpful. One worry was the lack of access, with the road still needing repair. The bus meant to serve them had done an exploratory run, but they feared it would not be regular. However a programme of cash for work, which the GA told me proudly had been initiated in several areas to fast forward infrastructural development, would probably take care of that very soon.
Another problem was that they had been left out of assistance for agriculture which was their regular occupation. I was surprised, because elsewhere I had seen farmers at work in the fields, and also a stock of onion bulbs, which had been distributed for seeding. But it was clear that the deficiency in this particular area would soon be overcome. Certainly the decision of government to move swiftly to livelihood development, and provide the means of economic activity, seemed welcome to people who had not relished being dependents without any stability for so many years previously.
The most heartening sign of their recognition that stability had returned was the number who had set up small boutiques or businesses. Two single sisters showed me a massive stock of coconuts they had bought up to supply to a dealer, though they complained that the profit marging was very low. Another gentleman sold us mangoes, not only from his garden, while – if not entirely satisfactorily – there was also junk food in profusion. Obviously these villagers would not have bought stocks of these unless there was a market for them.
And, most astonishingly, in the village just beyond the one that had difficulties, there was a video parlour in operation. The father had set up a small boutique, the son went into Vavuniya regularly and hired videos and showed them to his fellows at Rs 20 a night, and made an income of about Rs 700 per showing. That village was certainly very jolly, with another better access road, a very good water supply, and already bountiful harvests of fish. The evening I was there, the film to be shown was a love story, and the village was evidently looking forward to this – a far cry from all they had been through, forced over a year previously to flee with all their belongings, belongings that diminished as the trek they were forced into got more and more arduous. What they have now may not be ideal but, as one woman said to us, it was more than they had expected during their ordeal.