Humanitarian Operation II: Shelter for Displaced
The three decade-long armed conflict drew to a close on May 19, 2009. Many of those who had made it out alive had battled constant displacements, death and destruction among themselves, before finally making it to Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps.
When President Maithripala Sirisena visited the Konapuram Camp in Telippali in Kankasenthurai within a year after assuming office in January 2015, he was shocked to hear some of the inmates of the Camp were living there for a period of over 20 years. The first makeshift shelter, the President stepped into belonged to Rasamani Sivaneshwaram, the head of the family from Thaiyatti in Jaffna Peninsula told the President that more than half of his life he was inside the camp.
The President’s immediate instructions to the Defence Ministry was to construct houses for the landless people immediately and close down the camp as early as possible. When this correspondent visited the newly built housing complex at Telippali, beaming Siwaneshwaram and family members were looking at the house allotted to them where the soldiers were busy with the finishing touches to the house.
Brigadier Prashantha Seneviratne said that first 100 houses were completed and within few weeks they would be handed over to the displaced families. The value of each 2-bedroomed house was over Rs 2 million. The military constructed the house at a cost of below Rs, 900,000, saving the government over Rs. 121 million in constructing 100 houses.
“We were allowed to select the land extent. We performed religious rituals at the site before laying the foundation,” Sivaneshwaram said with a smile as he is about to own a house for the first time in his 46-year-old life. “People said we will get our houses in 3 months. Although there is a little delay now, it is immaterial. What is few more weeks for us, when we lived here for more than 20 years?”, they said.
“We all are thankful to the President for visiting us. Things started moving after his visit,” he said gratefully. “I do have the security of my house to sleep in. It means a lot to me and my family, and I am thankful to the President for facilitating it.”
Initially, there were 118,363 displaced persons in camps in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1993. The camps took years to close as the people’s lands had to be cleared of landmines and other hazards first. Some of those lands became demarcated as ‘High Security Zones’ which left the people of those areas bereft of their lands. However, most of the people were resettled over the years.
At the end of the conflict in May 2009, there were 64 camps in the Jaffna Peninsula. In the last seven years, 33 camps were closed down after resettling the displaced people. Today, there are 31 camps with 3,388 people.
Some residents at the Konapuram camp were originally from villages in remote areas. “We cannot go back to our original dwellings. Our lands had been overtaken by jungle shrubs. We found them infested with wild animals. Snakes, wild pigs were running amok. We did not possess enough funds to clear our lands at that time. So, we sheltered under trees until we were moved to this camp,” said Nellamma, 48-year-old, whose daughter and granddaughter were born in the camp. Her son-in-law, the sole breadwinner, works as a temporary mason at a building site. “Now, my granddaughter will be able to live in a proper house. I thank the government for this,” he said.
The temporary shelters, the refugees were first settled in, were erected with corrugated iron and tin sheets, meant for only six months’ occupation – yet as it turned out, they have served as homes for the people for more than 20 years now.
It was in these circumstances that the government ordered the military to construct 100 permanent homes for the people in the Konapuram camp immediately. The project was planned with close coordination with the camp dwellers who would own the houses.
Each housing unit was originally estimated to cost Rs. 750,000. “We did a pilot study in the provinces before we launched the project that made us believe that this amount was enough. However, due to later inflation in cement and other prices, it went up to about Rs 880,000,” said military headquarters sources.
Brigadier Seneviratne said that the project has come to its end. Only a community centre is yet to be completed.
Another recipient, Naganathan, looked at his house and 20 perches land extent with pride. Naganathan said that for nearly 20 years his family was displaced. “My family and I were dependant on the goodwill of strangers who would allow us to set up a hut on their lands and later moved to the camp. Now finally, I have this security of my own permanent house on my own land is not something I could have achieved on my own.”
Jaffna Commander Major General Mahesh Senanayake is happy that the housing project could be completed in such a short time. He plans to initiate a second phase to construct 33 more houses immediately so that the remaining families in the camp could be provided with permanent houses.
General Senanayake pointed out that there are 682 landless families in several camps in Jaffna. He proposed another new project to construct 259 houses to end the housing problem of the displaced persons in the Jaffna Peninsula. This proposal seeks the support of the Air Force and Navy. The proposal should be carried out with the support of the three forces and Police and Civil Security Force, making it the next phase of the ‘Humanitarian Operation’.