The resettlement of 15,000 Sri Lankan Tamil war refugees in Vaharai, 65 km north of Batticaloa town in Eastern Sri Lanka, appears to have been done without adequate planning and preparation.
After a visit to the site earlier this week, one felt that it would have been prudent for the government to have waited until the basic infrastructure in terms of housing, sanitation, water supply and power was created before the refugees were brought back.
It seems that the government was under mounting international pressure to do something for the 200,000-odd refugees created by the most recent phase of fighting. The refugees had become a major embarrassment to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
Undoubtedly, a lot of hard work has gone into Vaharai in the last few months, particularly after the refugees were brought back in March. But the place is still far from being habitable. Most importantly, the means of livelihood are still to be restored.
Victim of tsunami and war
The government should have been aware that Vaharai had been a victim of the tsunami as well as war in the last two years, and had undergone significant property damage twice in quick succession. The task of reconstruction is therefore enormous. Almost everything in Vaharai has had to be built from scratch.
"We had come back willingly, but we did not bargain for this," said Easwary, a middle aged lady sitting on a pile of rubble, the remains of her home. "We have no toilets, and no water," complained Kamala, a mother of three. Clearly, government's water supply scheme had not reached everybody.
The war had struck Vaharai before it could recover from the tsunami. According to the Confederation of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), 1,112 houses were to have been built after the tsunami, but only 325 were built! The war in 2006, only added to the deficit.
Panichenkerni township with a population of 500, just outside Vaharai, has war written all over it. Situated next to a decimated LTTE camp, this township is today a bunch of battered houses. "When it rains, there is no cover," lamented Rajadurai, a farmer whose house has no roof worth the name.
A majority of the people of Vaharai are fishermen, but most are still to receive the promised nets and boats from the government. Their own were either destroyed or stolen while they were away as refugees. Thurai, a fisherman who had got a boat, said that what he needed was one with an outboard motor to go deeper into the sea. "The catch near the shore is not good," he said.
Farmers most affected
About a quarter of returnees are farmers, and these are the most affected, as this is not the agricultural season. "We have no work and therefore no cash," said Muralidharan, a paddy farmer.
Many are eager to work as labourers in the construction sites and the wages are good. But construction work is slack now. The contractors are partly responsible for this. "We took three months to start our work because we were not sure if it would be safe to commit our men and material to Vaharai. War is still on in Batticaloa," explained Ramesh, a building contractor.
Most returnees are dependent on the dry rations (like rice, dal, milk powder,cooking oil, and sugar) distributed by the government and the cooperatives. But the promised amount does not come. "We are supposed to get rations twice a week, but we get them only twice a month and the quantities are not enough," said Usharani (55).
The refugees want the government to shed its prejudice against the NGOs and INGOs. "We would not have survived the tsunami without the NGOs," said Thavaraja a fishermen. Right now, 10 or 15 NGOs are working in Vaharai but there is room for more.
Although most young men close to the LTTE had escaped, government still suspects the youth. Pushparani said that her son had to report to the police every week, though he had nothing to do with the LTTE.
Vaharai is not without a brighter side, though. The lone hospital is clean and is fully operational. So are the schools. "All the 4042 students and 142 teachers," are back, said Maj.Berty Perera, the popular Army-Civil Coordinator.