The Myriad Social Issues Facing People In The North

Tisha* wears a pale pink skirt and blouse. She squints at us through her glasses, wearing a resigned look. She is one of the many people who were displaced by the war. Forced to leave home in the 1990s in Vavuniya, she returned to her home as soon as it was safe, as part of the rehabilitation process in October 2009. Through the UNHCR, she received the standard immediate relief package- 16 tin sheets, eight bags of cement, and Rs. 5000.

Tisha hasn’t received anything since. Settling back in Nochchimoto, Vavuniya, she built a makeshift house out of what she was given. Shortly after, her parents died of old age. Now, Tisha has no hope of gaining a proper home, not even in the housing schemes built specially for the newly resettled, because she is on her own, and the housing authorities do not think it efficient to give a large house to just one person. She stays with relatives at night, but would like a house to call her own.

Tisha was provided with 9 months worth of dry rations, but eventually, this too stopped. Tisha is one of the women who have fallen through the cracks in the system. While it is true that people continue to be resettled, there are many like Tisha who do not qualify to have a home of their own, and are forced to depend on the kindness of relatives.

Tisha’s companion Vararoha* has other stories- a girl arriving from one of the welfare centres, where she had been rehabilitated for six months. She was three months pregnant; meaning that she had almost certainly been impregnated while undergoing rehabilitation.

The women of Jaffna are afraid to speak out, but agree reluctantly. While they are all glad that the war is over, they feel that their culture is being systematically destroyed, they say. While the Government assures people that they can resettle in their own areas, many families return to places like Mallady to find their lands turned into High Security Zones. Forced to stay packed close together in temporary camps, child abuse, sexual harassment and rape is rampant. In places like Konapulan, where one such camp has been set up, there are also shortages in basic facilities like toilets and drinking water. The families continue to ask when they can return home, and receive no answer.

In other instances, families return to find no houses, no security, and no demarcation of land- so that neighbouring families often find themselves locked in domestic disputes with each other. These problems are exacerbated due to the sudden increase in the number of restaurants serving alcohol. More and more of Jaffna’s youth, including schoolchildren, are turning to drink. While Tisha and the others acknowledge that bars and restaurants are part of many developing cities, they complain that these shops are often located inside villages, near hospitals and even, sometimes, schools. Women passing these areas to go home are often accosted by drunk men, and sometimes, even forced to give sexual favours.

There is also open discrimination in terms of livelihood, Vararoha said. A broad stretch of sea in KKS, Pallaly and Mailitti has been declared a High Security Zone. The land area was captured by the military during the war, and is said to be rich in sea life. Tamils are restricted from these areas, yet, they claim, fishermen from the South are allowed to fish there freely. This was confirmed by an EPDP member who said that the area was off limits to civilians, (although it was added that the situation was unclear in terms of holidayers from the South).  The member discounted the importance of these areas for fishing. “Most of the sea is free. Why should they insist on fishing here, when they can get a good catch from Mullaitivu?” the member said. He added that fishermen at the Northern tip faced heavy competition from Indian fishermen, who often took a good portion of the catch.
Jaffna has suffered economically as well. The rising kerosene prices have made life difficult for vegetable cultivators, who find it difficult to compete with the cheaper produce sent in from Dambulla.

And although the farmers do send produce, like red onions and grapes, to Dambulla, prices are still on the increase. The freedom of movement in and out of Jaffna has also led to another alarming development- with businessmen from the South traveling to Jaffna and harassing girls, Tisha and the others say. EPDP members confirmed that alcoholism was on the rise, but added that this was symptomatic of the war itself, when young boys began to join the war effort and a ‘culture of defiance’ arose. Parents and teachers found themselves unable to discipline their children, and this was the main reason for many of the social problems in the area, he said.

With all this said, the ‘militarisation’ spoken of was not evident in Jaffna, with Army presence much reduced. There was evidence that the military were engaging in productive work. In Omanthai, for instance, there is a large military-run shop selling chocolate, biscuits and other food for travelers, close to a smaller Tamil shop selling local produce.
There is some evidence of development too, with many new buildings, including the hospital at Chavakachcheri. But while the town has benefited from the end of the war, there are still women like Tisha. ‘Rich people go abroad to escape from this. But we have nowhere to go,’ she says, her face lined with worry.

The war might be over, and many civilians in Jaffna are willing to move on and try their best to make a living. Not everyone was so critical, (or vocal), with manioc vendors and farmers alike asserting that they were happy and had no issues. But the town still suffers from myriad social problems, and it is clear that some people still feel anger and resentment. In that sense, the road to reconciliation continues to be long and slow.
*names changed to protect identity

Original Post | The Sunday Leader | April 1 2012