The controversial retention of public land in the Jaffna Peninsula, on the excuse they come under ‘high security zones (HSZ),’ has left thousands of Jaffna residents homeless and prime agricultural land unused by the civilians.
Hidden from locals, in the Valikamam North HSZ, the military has taken to developing the region for tourism purposes, unfortunately at the expense of hundreds of people, who have lost their homes.
In an area sitting along the Peninsula’s northern beach front, and covering nearly 25 square miles, the Valikamam North HSZ is cordoned off to all locals, who wish to travel to what were originally their own homes.
Many of the former residents have been displaced from the region since 1990. However, with the end of the war and the publication of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), these people feel they are not being treated fairly by the government.
S. Paramanthan, Secretary for the People’s Council for Peace and Goodwill, said his original plot of land sits just outside the HSZ and was only returned to him a few months back. “I am happy I got my land back, but because it is just outside the HSZ it is still difficult to rebuild. There are a lot more restrictions in place regarding constructions,” he said.
However, Paramanthan complained that many of his family and friends were living in temporary housing because their lands and homes are inside the HSZ. “These people have been displaced for over 20 years; many of them see little chance of returning to their homes. A government-appointed Committee produced a report (LLRC) that called for the return of these lands. Yet, the government continues to ignore the recommendation. There is little chance that they will listen to us, if they do not listen to their own administration,” he said.
While the secretary was lucky enough to regain his own property many others have not been as fortunate. Ganesh Raghu, a local fisherman, has accepted that neither he nor his family will ever see their own home again. Having lived in displacement camps for several years, before moving from the houses of family members and friends, Raghu has never been able to earn enough to buy a new house. “Our land, and the house on it, was in my family for three generations. When it was first taken over by the Army, we were told it would be returned once the war ended. Now the fighting has been over for four years and we have still not been given our land,” he charged.
It has been over two decades since he has last seen his house. Raghu has only a photo to remind himself of the building. “I am scared that I will forget the house I grew up in. I show this to my children to remind them that they do have a home, which was wrongfully taken.”
Raghu is one of the hundreds of civilians, who have filed petitions in the courts to have their lands returned. “I am not looking to fight for political rights and I certainly am not looking to have a separate State. All I want is the opportunity to return to my own home, and make sure my children and their children live somewhere that is their own,” he said.
Most residents have complained that they cannot even gain access in to the HSZ to check on their former homes. However, the newly re-opened Thalsevana Holiday Resort (formerly the Harbour View Hotel) ensures local tourists from other districts can visit the area.
Travelling along the newly laid road to the hotel, either side bears reminders of the military occupation, which now appears to be settling in for a permanent stay. Arriving at the hotel, either side is full of military personnel hard at work expanding the already existing structure. The hotel consists of 15 rooms, which ranges from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000 a night. According to the local residents, it is near impossible for them to get a booking. However, on inquiry at the reception it was learnt that rooms would be readily available from next week.
The surrounding areas still carry the scars of a war, with many buildings destroyed and overgrown through neglect. However, the military is doing the best to restore the HSZ to normalcy, with police stations and accommodation for the soldiers being set up.
The residents of the Peninsula have criticized the government’s retention of these lands, saying that this area has the most fertile soil and they are reducing the earning capacity. N. Thangam, a local onion farmer, explained, “Jaffna is a difficult land to farm. We do not have rivers or lakes to water our crops and so we have to struggle to dig deep wells. One positive thing is the fertility of the red Jaffna soil. Now one of the most fertile areas in the region has been taken over by the Army. They have cost us a potentially large amount of income,” he complained.
Despite the large protests against the acquisition of the land, there seems to be little being done to answer the demands of the locals.