By Somapala Gunadheera –
I felt sad to learn from the media that thousands who were displaced by the civil war were still roughing it out in refugee camps, waiting for their native lands to be released by the Army. According to the newspapers thirty one welfare camps are situated in seven Divisional Secretariats of the Jaffna District, housing 936 families, comprising 3,260 people.
The news took my memory back to 1997, when I visited the Poonthottam Camp in Vavuniya, as the first chairman of the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Authority of the North. It was a pitiable sight with thousands of refugees from the Peninsula cramped in dingy enclosures. Moved by their sad plight, I started transferring them back to Jaffna by boat first through Trincomalee and then through Mannar as the west coast became accessible. But some of the transferees could not be settled in their own lands for security reasons, as neighbouring army camps were exposed to attack by the LTTE. It is this residue that is reported to be still suffering in makeshift digs that were then expected to last only a few months. It is painful to reflect that toddlers that I transported twenty years ago, have now grown up to adulthood but are still living without a roof of their own over their heads.
To my mind this stagnation is a result of the clash of two interests. One relates to security and the other to human rights. Understandably, with bitter memories of the ravages caused by the LTTE insurrection, the South gets worked up at the thought of reducing security camps in the North, imagining from their armchairs that such a move would jeopardize security, exposing the North to recapture by terrorist forces. In the first place, terrorism in the North has been so much controlled on the ground that its resurgence has become a far cry, as the Northern Commander has declared recently. Secondly, there is enough crown lands in the Peninsula to accommodate a perfect security regime without compromising its legitimate objectives. On a recent trip through the Peninsula, I noticed large stretches of abandoned land that was in use when I was a Cadet in the Jaffna Kachcheri in 1957.
In any event, settling the refugees in their own lands after three decades will not dislodge the existing camps. Judging from my memories of living in them initially, as I started my assignment in the RRAN, they should have enough territory to be able to allocate space for the settlement of refugees awaiting relocation. Besides the present security concerns may not tally with the demand that existed when the fight was on. Relocation of camps to meet the present needs by itself, may lead to the choice of new locations. If this position is explained to those agitated by vague rumours about dislodging the army in the North, they would not certainly object to placing in their own lands thousands of human beings who had suffered the rough and tumble of refugee life for decades, while they themselves were enjoying the comforts of a cosy life in their own homes. I am sure they are enlightened enough to appreciate a human being’s right to live in a house of one’s own choice.
In this background, it is up to the rehabilitation authorities to explain to the Public that settling the refugees in their own lands would not be detrimental to national security. The two are no longer incompatible concepts. The Human Rights Commission also has an important role to play here as a third party to the dispute. They have an urgent duty to get involved with the burning problem of the refugees and convince the protagonists that the displaced could be accommodated in their own homes without jeopardizing security concerns. The Commission should also assume the responsibility to oversee the resolution of the refugee crisis within a short time-frame.