Story by Anupama Ganegoda, courtesy www.perambara.org
Batticaloa has long fascinated many. It is here that the biggest internal rebellion within the LTTE began. It is also here that the Tigers, for years, maintained a made-formedia showcase at Karadiyanaru with a court, a police station and what not.
The man who ran the show is the same man who is now tasked with the responsibilities of reconstruction: Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan. Back when he was better known as Col. Karuna, you could land in Tiger land, five minutes from government controlled areas. That is if you crossed the Black Bridge, just five minutes from Chenkaladi town. All that ended in mid 2007 when the Tigers were swept away from the East. Now civilians are trying to get back to what life was before the war erupted. The areas formerly held by the Tigers have changed; the presence of armed security is considerably less, movement markedly easy and the atmosphere easy-going. Crossing the Black Bridge now, we meet people who are grappling with what the war left behind.
Farmer turned fisherman, Krishnan Ramanathan, returns home to Periya Pillumalai after a night of fishing. Having spent over three decades of his life in Pillumalai, he was forced to abandon his home due to the heavy fighting during the end of the war. “We stayed in the camps for the internally displaced for a while” he says. Following his return, he was provided with aid and rations for about six months. “We don’t get anything now”.
He has given up his work as a farmer as there is no water to irrigate his lands. “Only a handful of people are still involved in agriculture” he says. Many others head over to the Welijakandi Lake for fishing. It’s not a lucrative form of living, as the father of five explains. His haul would return around Rs. 150 and building a house for his family remains a distant dream. But he has started on the dream and knows that it will be a reality if things turn normal here.
Ramanathan’s plea can be heard across the voices of the people in the area. They are asking for irrigation from the Welijakandi lake to be restored, which would allow them to use over three hundred acres of farm land.
Ramanathan’s daughter, Sarojadevi stays at home assisting her mother. “I stopped school halfway when Appa kept me home in fear of the LTTE conscripting me”, she says innocently. She wants to find work somewhere, “but there is nobody who would give us a job”. Amidst the hardship, she finds peace in the fact that her sisters can continue their education unlike her.
For those who returned after the war’s end, the biggest need appears to be houses.
“We left for camps when the war stared. We had a beautiful little house which we had to abandon. When we came back however, only the walls of the house was left,” says Koneshwari Aruldevi. They live in the same house now, having done basic repairs to it. The idea of restoring the house to its original state remains a distant dream for the pregnant Aruldevi and her labourer husband.
According to Arumugam Balakrishnan, the Grama Niladhari of Pillumalai, out of the 379 families who returned following the end of the war, only 179 remain. “Many left because the state of housing was so bad,” he says. He says there is a need for over 300 new houses.
The lack of jobs is having an impact on the education of Pilumallai’s young. Teachers complain that parents keep them away from school to get their help in fishing or other work. At the Roman Catholic school only half of the 40 or so enrolled students regularly turn up. According to Indumathi Prabakharan, a teacher at the school, parents are reluctant to send their children to school because everyone is surviving day to day. “The children are asked to stay at home to help with the farming and daily chores, which is sad, as there are students who have great potential who don’t come to school.”
The teacher who travels daily from Chenkaladi, an up and down trip of over 60km in a dilapidated van, feels that if development returns to Pilumallai, the children’s future is assured. If it does not, it will be a hard grind.