The journey home: Sri Lanka’s displaced try to rebuild their lives

It is nearly eight years since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended but thousands of displaced people are still trying to reclaim their homes. We report from the Northern Province, on a country still divided.

A submarine at a 'war tourism' site close to a former Tamil Tigers' base. The sites also attract visitors from the south. Karim Mostafa for The National.
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Eight years have passed since the end of Sri Lanka’s long war, which forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Many are now returning and rebuilding what was lost but the road back is a long one.

“We had a big house before, the biggest in the neighbourhood.”

R Kanthasamy and K Sivamalar stand on the foundations of what was once their home, in a small garden in the northern town of Kilinochchi. Only the cement ground remains and it is hard to make out where the walls were. Their garden is not the only empty plot in the town – the former de facto capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who for 26 years fought for independence in Sri Lanka’s north. Kilinochchi, and almost all of its houses, were destroyed in the final phase of the war.

“The only thing that survived is the mango tree. When we left it was tiny, it gave only three mangoes. Now, it has grown so big,” says K Sivamalar.

The couple have returned from India, where they lived as refugees for almost two decades. R Kanthasamy, who has diabetes, could not afford treatment costs as only basic health care is provided to refugees. The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu shares linguistic and cultural bonds with Sri Lanka’s north and still accommodates more than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees.


Sri Lanka’s civil war in stats

• The war took place from 1983 to 2009 between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement fighting for the north’s independence.

• The mainly-Hindu Tamil community, about 12 per cent of the population, faced discrimination after Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948.

• 100,000 people died, including soldiers, during the war, with about 40,000 in the final phase in 2009.

• One million Tamils fled abroad.

• 65,000 people are still missing, with 90,000 women widowed.

• 137,000 homes still need to be rebuilt.

• 100,000 refugees live in Tamil Nadu in southern India, 65,000 of them in refugee camps


“About 8,000 people have returned since the war ended. Many still worry about the situation in Sri Lanka because the image they have is, of how it was when they left,” says A Sutharsan from OfERR, an organisation that supports refugees in India and Sri Lanka.

That image is of a country torn apart by war. The conflict brought much devastation to the north, particularly at the end of the war in 2009, when then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa led a military offensive to defeat the LTTE. The civilian population of the Tiger-held areas was trapped inside the war zone. They were stopped from leaving by the LTTE and hit by mass shelling. The UN estimates that 40,000 civilians were killed.

Eight years later, Sri Lanka is still grappling with how to heal those wounds. A new government was elected in 2015, after promising to seek justice and a solution for the events of the war. But president Maithripala Sirisena has been criticised, also by the UN, for being “worryingly slow”.

“The government is anxious that if they do too much the Rajapaksa regime might come back to power. But what is the point in having a government if its hands are tied,” says rights activist Marisa Da Silva.

For those who lost their homes during the war, for many, the most important thing is returning home. Up to 50,000 homes have been rebuilt so far. But 137,000 families are still homeless in in the former war zone and many are still struggling to rebuild their lives.

“We used to call this neighbourhood ‘Little Singapore’. It was a prosperous part of the city, life here was good. That is, until our refugee lives began.”

Refugees R Kanthasamy and K Sivamalar on the foundations of their former home, where they live in a shed. Their four children are still in India. Karim Mostafa for The National

Jancy Caffur crosses the road in Jaffna, the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, on her way home from work. A principal at Osmania College, Jaffna’s school for Muslim children, her father was also principal but the school closed in 1990, when the Muslim population in the north were evicted from their homes.

“The LTTE came with guns to our doors. They gave us two hours to leave and we were not allowed to bring anything. Imagine, we lost everything just like that,” says Caffur.

The expulsion of the 65,000 Muslims was part of the LTTE’s attempt to establish political autonomy in the north. It is only now the war is over that Muslim families have been able to return.

“The main problem has to do with land,” says Jansila Majeed, a women’s rights activist. “Many people don’t have documents, because they lost them at displacement. But we also have to establish new bonds between the Muslim and Tamil communities, because we share this land together.”

Caffur and her parents, who returned to Jaffna in 2015, have restored the inside of their house. The façade, like most on the street, is still marked by decades of decay. Many homes have only their outer walls and are overgrown by plants and weeds. Eight years have now passed since the war ended, but only 500 out of Jaffna’s 2,500 estimated Muslim families have returned.

“This happens in displacement. People build new lives in the places they fled to. And the new generation after a while is not emotionally connected to the place their parents left,” says Ida Suhanya Jesu, who worked with the displaced northern communities.

V Pathmaavathi, a grandmother in Chunnakam, another part of Jaffna, tells a similar story. Her family was displaced in 1990, when the army took control of large parts of land previously held by the LTTE. Their house, along with those of thousands of others, was suddenly inside the high security zones.

Children run to class in an old building in the Muslim area of Jaffna. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) expelled Muslims from the north in 1990 and they are now trying to rebuild their lives. Karim Mostafa for The National

“We have not been allowed to see our land for 27 years,” she says. “The army uses it, the soil there is very good for growing vegetables. But even if we can return, it will be hard, because the land we have is very small and our family has grown. My eldest son was 12 when we fled; he now has five children of his own.”

Pathmaavathi’s current home is inside one of Sri Lanka’s few remaining “welfare camps”, set up to house a displaced population. The lanes in between the houses are narrow; the air smells of washing powder and of chillies being fried in oil. Colourful kites, belonging to a group of children, dance across the sky. All the families in the camp come from the same area: Myliddy, a seaside village on the northern coast, which was once one of Sri Lanka’s most important harbours.

“It used to be a very vibrant community, but they have been struggling since displacement. There is such a strong link between land and livelihood,” says Niyanthini Kadirgamar, a researcher in Jaffna.

In February, the residents of Keppapilavu, another village under military control, staged a protest demanding the return of their lands. A larger protest movement has since spread across the north, adding pressure on the government to stand by its post-war commitments to justice. The new government has released land during its two years in power, but more than 12,750 acres (51.6 square kilometres) still remain under military control. Some land has been released since the protests, but residents say it lacks the quality of residential areas like Keppapilavu or Myliddy.

The role of the military remains a contentious issue in Sri Lanka, and one that is hard to reconcile with rebuilding the country. A report by the UN found that torture remains a “common practice”, while past atrocities by security forces have not been investigated. There are more soldiers stationed in the north than anywhere else in the country and they are almost all Sinhalese, not Tamil, who are the majority ethnicity in the north.

Besides holding on to civilian land, the army also runs hotels and restaurants, and tourist attractions at former LTTE sites. In the jungle in Mullaitivu, not far from the where the final battle of the war took place, is an outdoor swimming pool where the LTTE used to train. Uniformed soldiers now guide visitors to this area, which has a small cafeteria and a children’s playground.

Daya Somasundaram, member of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation task force, says the national psyche is struggling to shift from war to peace. Karim Mostafa for The National

“We are the most militarised country in South Asia, with one military to 10 people. It is very difficult to shift from a war mentality to that of peace, and also how the army acts in society,” says Daya Somasundaram, a psychiatrist who is also a member of the taskforce appointed to oversee Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process.

Not far from the high-security zone near the northern coast is an open field, where rows of identical houses are being built by the army. It calls them the Nallinakkapuram, or “reconciliation village”. Inside each house is a framed picture of president Sirisena, and another one of the army, saying “Men in green are friends in need.”

“For us, it is good to have a house, because we lived in a camp for over 25 years. But there are no jobs here. I go on my bicycle each day to get fish from the market, then sell it to people here,” says R Danistan, who lived in Myliddy before the war – a few kilometres away.

“I don’t think we will be able to return. We will have to build our lives here instead,” he says.

Jenny Gustafsson is a journalist based in Beirut.