The Nation takes a peep into a community, comprising Sinhalese and Tamils, in the north where its members have been conveniently ignored by politicians and even Chief Minister CV. Wigneswaran
Six years after the end of the war, and despite the resultant economic and social benefits, some families that were rendered displaced due to the fighting continue to suffer, away from the eyes of authorities, in both North and South. Navatkuli, some seven kilometers south of Jaffna town, is one such place, except for one unique feature; it is populated by both Tamils and Sinhalese. Most had returned in 2010, soon after the end of the war, and nearly all have the same complaint: No one cares about their plight. These ‘forgotten ones’ are largely left to fend for themselves, and their misery is a sad indictment of the country’s politicians, who promise much during elections and scoff at those promises afterwards.
Malkanthi says that politicians were the ones who created tensions between the two communities. ‘The government does nothing for the Tamil settlers. However, when the Sinhala Ravaya comes and builds the houses of the Sinhalese, the Tamils look on and think it is the government’s work; that the government is building houses for the Sinhalese while ignoring the Tamils,’ she says
Sitting in her front yard, Malkanthi Wickramasinghe details her story of displacement, subsequent return and the daily struggle she still has to wage to live out her life in her birthplace. Our interview is interrupted by a phone call, to which she answers in fluent Tamil. “I was born here in Jaffna, but my children only learnt Tamil after they came back here,” she says. Her husband, a Muslim, works at a timber mill in Ariyalai. Malkanthi has four children and two of them reside with her in Navatkuli. The other two live in Colombo with their families, as both have children of school-going age. Currently, 14 Sinhala families live permanently in the village, though 59 families in total have settled here. “Most of the families don’t live here permanently as there is no school for their children to attend,” Malkanthi explains. The Jaffna Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya, the only Sinhala school in the Peninsula, is still occupied by the army, and as such, families are reluctant to withdraw their children from schools in places such as Anuradhapura, where they are currently studying. Malkanthi says she expected more families to resettle permanently in Jaffna once the school is released, though she was uncertain when that might be.
Malkanthi’s own troubles started soon after the riots of July, 1983. Most of the Sinhala families in the area had been living in Maniyanthottam, about 2 ½ km from where they are residing now. They fled south to Anuradhapura and lived for about two years in pilgrim’s rest houses (Vishrama Shaala) belonging to temples. In 1985, the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa gave them houses at a village in Mihinthale, she says. “But we didn’t want to settle there as that village was in the middle of a jungle. So, they gave us Rs.10,000 and we moved to Colombo and settled in a rented house”.
This was their life until the war ended. When they returned in 2010, they found their lands being occupied by others. “We did not want to fight with the people who were there. They had suffered even more than us,” Malkanthi observes. However, they needed a place to stay and ended up temporarily sheltering at the then disused Navatkuli Railway Station before the government allocated them lands near the station itself. Though the lands were allocated to them, only three families have so far received title deeds declaring ownership of these lands. The houses they live in were built by the Sinhala Ravaya organization. A temple also stands there now, also built by the same organization.
It didn’t take long for tensions to flare up. “Some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Provincial Councilors and MPs accused us of being part of a Sinhala colonization scheme. They came and demanded that we leave. We told them we were born and bred in Jaffna just like them and refused to budge,” Malkanthi says. Intimidation tactics took a violent turn one night in 2013, when someone threw a hand grenade onto the temple property. A small army detachment was subsequently stationed near the settlement to protect the residents. It is still there.
However, these tensions have mostly subsided now, according to her. She says the change came with the appointment of Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigeneswaran, who accepted birth certificates, marriage certificates and other documents that they offered as proof that they were original residents. This though, does not mean everything is settled. The settlers do not have clean water, and have to depend on the local temple for the resource. They had finally been given electricity by the previous regime after numerous appeals to authorities. “The land we live on and electricity are the only things that we have received from the government,” Malkanthi laments.
She also says some people have tried to exploit the building of houses, for the Sinhalese being resettled, by viewing the exercise as a business. “We know some people have collected funds overseas saying it’s for this purpose. However, we appeal to people who wish to donate to do so only through the Sinhala Ravaya organization as they are the ones who actually built these houses”.
Studying for A’ Levels
Navatkuli is actually a collection of five different hamlets that make up one village. Malkanthi then takes us to the adjoining Tamil settlement, where we are introduced to her friend, Noel Perera Wathsala.
Wathsala is Tamil. Her husband, a Sinhalese from Maligawatta, works as a driver at Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB). She has a daughter serving in the Sri Lanka Army. If the lives of the Sinhalese families in Navatkuli are bad, those from the adjoining Tamil settlement are far worse.
The families, about 110 in total, mostly live in shacks made of wood and asbestos sheets. Most of them also haven’t been given title deeds for the lands they have settled on since returning. Many of these houses are occupied by close to 10 people. The fact that many are built on low ground and on sand, means that they become flooded and uninhabitable during the rains, residents said. Some 40 houses become flooded this way during heavy rains, according to them, and the inhabitants have to seek shelter with their neighbors. It is especially difficult for the children, who often fall sick. Some are studying for their A/Level examinations and find their studies constantly interrupted due to such difficulties.
Two of the main issues facing these residents are lack of clean water and toilet facilities. Only a handful of wells exist in the settlement, and arguments constantly arise over water. “Some people don’t want others bathing from their wells or taking water, so those without a well have to seek the help of some other neighbor. It is all quite difficult,” one resident says.
As for toilet facilities, there are none. People have to go into the bush or the beach to relieve themselves. The men don’t have an issue with this, but it is a nightmare for the women, according to residents. “When the women and girls go out in the morning, there are toddy tappers up in the trees. As such, they are ashamed to go to the toilet knowing that they can be seen from the trees,” one man explains.
Wathsala points out that most people in the village are laborers anyway. “We can build the toilets ourselves, if they can only give us some funds”.
The people here are bitter at their local politicians, who they accuse of continuing to look the other way despite constant appeals regarding their difficulties. “Only (Deputy Minister) Vijayakala Maheswaran came recently. She promised to provide land permits for us by the end of the year,” residents told The Nation.
As for Chief Minister Wigneswaran, the residents allege that he has not bothered to look into their plight despite numerous appeals. “We visited him so many times and appealed to him, but he is yet to visit us even once, and it’s not that far to come,” they say angrily.
However, local politicians come in their dozens during election times, they say. “They talk to us, even enter our houses, pose for the cameras and say they will fix everything. But they don’t even look at us after the elections,” one of them charges. Most of the Jaffna media are no better, they say. “They come with the politicians or when there is some sort of unrest. Otherwise, they don’t bother,” says Wathsala. As such, residents say they have taken a collective decision not to vote for anyone at the upcoming General Election. “What use is it to vote for those who don’t care about their voters?” one man queries.
Kidlar Jeyar, a woman whose entire family is living inside what could be best described as a small wooden shack, expresses the thought felt by the entire community. “We are being treated as if we came from Thooththukudi (in India). We have been cast aside. We have appealed and appealed to everyone who we thought would listen, and now our hearts are broken,” reflects Jeyar.
The economic benefits of the post-war era are yet to be felt by these villagers. Many young men work as laborers. Ranjith Raj is a science graduate from the University of Peradeniya. His brother is a lecturer at the Science Faculty, he claims. Ranjith says he was teaching for some time, “but I got mixed up in a court case and don’t do that anymore,” he adds. However, he says there are many educated young men in the village who have struggled to find gainful employment.
Malkanthi says that politicians were the ones who created tensions between the two communities. “The government does nothing for the Tamil settlers. However, when the Sinhala Ravaya comes and builds the houses of the Sinhalese, the Tamils look on and think it is the government’s work; that the government is building houses for the Sinhalese while ignoring the Tamils,” she says.
Despite all these difficulties, the Sinhalese and Tamil settlers get along well, say both communities in one voice. The fact that most of the Sinhalese can speak Tamil and many of the Tamils can speak Sinhala may contribute to this as the language barrier has long been a problem for the two communities to share their ideas. This, coupled with the difficulties they all face has unified these communities, so much so that Malkanthi says their next plan of action is to take their struggle to the streets if their continued appeals fall on deaf ears.
“We want to appeal to President Maithripala Sirisena and others in authority to stop ignoring the people of Navatkuli, both Sinhalese and Tamils, who have suffered so much over 30 years. They owe it to us ensure that we are not cast aside and forgotten,” Malkanthi emphasizes.