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Elections quicker than resettlement

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In the last one year Sri Lanka’s eastern Batticaloa district has seen two rounds of mass displacements as hundreds of thousands of people fled warfare between Tamil militants and the armed forces of the country.
In late 2006 and early 2007, frightened civilians, mostly ethnic Tamils, fled their homes in areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as the Sri Lankan army fought its way in to dislodge the militants.

As the government forces gained more and more LTTE territory, they also began a massive resettlement plan to get the internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their villages.

So far, over 104,000 of the IDPs have been resettled in areas regained by government forces such Vavunathivu and Vakarai, according to the ministry of resettlement and disaster relief services. Of those displaced until mid-March, last year, a little over 18,000 remain to be resettled.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse emphasised the reestablishment of its writ in the entire district by holding local body elections on Mar. 10 - though this was marred by the fact that the main opposition parties boycotted it.

And now the resettled civilians are demanding action from the newly elected local bodies.

"All my life I have been running, either from bullets or from shells. I have never been able to talk of a future," Sellan Sundaralingam, 49, and a father of three grown up daughters, told IPS in Vavuniathivu where 27,000 persons have been resettled.

Despite the mass returns, the villagers say that they still suffer from a chronic lack of basic facilities like proper roads, regular electricity, housing, schools and medical facilities.

"I still live in an abandoned house," Sundaralingam said.

Battered by decades of conflict, these newly resettled areas, mostly west of the famous Batticaloa lagoon have dirt track roads pockmarked by craters created by shell fire. School buildings are defaced and roofs and walls have been blown away by stray shells.

Kumaradass Nesamalar had hoped to rebuild his house with the Rs 250,000 (2,318 US dollars) that he received as tsunami relief.

"I was hit by the tsunami, my house was destroyed, but I was unable to repair it," the 38-year-old father of five children said. "Now the money is gone… spent on surviving the fighting.’’

Despite relative calm since last July, most of the newly resettled people bear the effects of having lived most of their lives under the barrel of a gun.

"The last few months have been good, there has been no war, no fighting and we have lived better," Nesamalar said.

"The harvest has been good and so is the fishing, but who knows what will happen tomorrow."

Villagers living in locations like Vavunathivu, Vakarai and Karadiyanaru, strongholds of the Tigers less than a year back, say their lives have been dictated by conflict for as long as they can remember.

"We have fled our homes on so many occasions and come back that it was almost a part of routine life," Sundaralingam said.

In fact, the last harvest was one of the best in recent years due partly to high rice prices in the Sri Lankan market and rich fishing operators have begun to cast eyes on coastal fishing spots like Vakarai, untapped for more than a decade.

The Rajapakse government has publicly pledged that development projects in the district would be fast-tracked after the local government elections.

Each of the nine newly constituted councils were handed Rs 2.5 million (23,000 dollars) by the President at the swearing-in-ceremony in mid March as support for local projects.

But just two weeks after the elections, two police officers were killed and five others, including three civilians, injured in a claymore attack in an areas south of Vavunanthivu.

Civilians who fled their villagers were resettled after a special registration process and issued special identity cards.

Outsiders still cannot travel about freely in the region. The U.N. and other relief agencies working in the areas have controlled access.

Development projects are likely to be delayed, at least till after the conclusion of the May 10 elections for the eastern provincial council that the government is anxious to conduct.

Like, the local body elections, this could end in a walkover for the ruling coalition. Batticaloa is one of three districts that fall in the eastern province.

Whoever wins, the local population is only interested in a peaceful and settled existence, after what they have been through. Much hope is placed on children growing up in these troubled areas.

Mana Madanaraja, a 14-year-old in Vavunathivu, has just recovered from a bout of measles but says that he likes going to school now.

"I like it, we can play in the ground without any fear. I go to school every day."

Madanaraja’s ambition is to be an engineer, "I want to help the people," he said, looking around at the dirt track road and ruined houses. But his school lacks basics such as text books.

"The teachers said that we will soon be getting them, it is difficult to study without text books."

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