Sunday, July 24, 2011

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Life begins anew

  • Sunday, July 24, 2011
  • Aruntha Kanagaratnam
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  • Mahajana College rebuilt by the Army

    Sinnathambi Thanabalasingham and Gnaneshwari

    Twenty-one years... such a long time, isn't it? Yes.... it took over two decades for him to settle down in his own house, which he built with his hard-earned savings. At an auspicious time, on July 15, he resettled in his 'home sweet home' in the village of Kollankalati, Mawattipuram West in Jaffna.

    Seventy-year-old Sinnathambi Thanabalasingham had to begin life all over again in the twilight of his life. Tears came to his eyes when told that he was finally permitted to return and stay in his own house.

    "Welcome to my house”, he said proudly to the Army officials who visited his compound. His house was not a strange place for the soldiers as it was formerly home to a small Army detachment. People are gradually resettling in the Kollankalati village, where over 500 families lived in the 1990s.

    Before telling his story, Thanabalasingham who complained about the difficulty in finding labourers, thanked the soldiers for supporting him in clearing the overgrown vegetation and abandoned well.

    Being employed as an electrical foreman at the Paper Corporation Valachchenai, he went to Libya to earn more towards making his distant dream, owning a house, a reality. But he had to vacate this house in 1990 as the entire village and several other nearby villages were taken over by the Army to establish the High Security Zone (HSZ) in Palali.

    Security Forces Commander of Jaffna
    Maj. Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe

    “The Army helped people build houses and clear the overgrown vegetation in Wadamarachchi East and Thannikilappu in the HSZ, but due to various constraints the Army couldn't play a major role in Thelippalai in helping them other than by clearing the earth bunds that we had built earlier.

    Compared to other areas, people here have rich family members abroad so they don't want us to get involved in these activities. Most of them want to rebuild their old mansions, but it is not possible for the Army to help them financially. However, the Government is giving them the basic infrastructure facilities and grants. This area was released to the public recently and there is time for us to get involved in helping them.

    “Over 40 percent of the HSZs have been released to the people. The remaining areas including the Eastern section of the HSZ will be released soon. We want to ensure that all areas are mine-free before releasing them to the people. A new building for Thellippalai Divisional Secretariat, a library, a bus stand and a supermarket will be built near the Union College junction within the next 12 months at a cost of Rs 181 million. Six schools including Union College and Mahajana College and several roads in the area will be developed under the allocations made through the Emergency Northern Recovery Project (ENREP) and Emergency Local Service project (NELSHIP) of the Economic Development Ministry.

    “Sections of the Tamil diaspora, which sold concocted stories on genocide and Sinhala hegemony to get asylum, send money monthly for their family members in Jaffna. Apart from that, there is no major contribution from them to uplift the living conditions of the people here.If they get together, they can make more investments for the betterment of the people of Jaffna.”

    From the first rented house in Chullipuram, 15 kms off Kollankalati, he lived in five rented houses from time to time until he was at last resettled in his house. “We vacated our place twice when the Indian Army was here. I came to see my house in 2002, but never thought that I would live there once again”, he heaved a sigh.

    Occupied by Army

    Thanabalasingham was lucky as his house was not damaged like many other houses in the area as it was occupied by the Army. The couple had prayed to the gods that they be allowed to breathe their last in their own house, which would pass on to their only child - who is now domiciled in France.

    “Our son had a daughter recently and will come here soon to see us”, Thanabalasingham and his wife, Gnaneshwari (69) said. Their eyes held hope.

    One by one, the families are returning to the village. They are either repairing or rebuilding houses or erecting fences. Their land, which were camouflaged in the thick vegetation, and the road was bulldozed by the Army and the village given a new look, where the red fertile soil added colour to the vicinity, bringing fresh hope to the villagers.

    Still waiting hopefully until the authorities restore electricity, Thanabalasingham kept all electrical appliances safely covered.

    “Electricity means life nowadays. We bought some electrical items. If they can provide us electricity connections, we have everything”, he smiled.

    Among other villagers in Thellippalai, Ranjini Kumarasingham too was busy, not rebuilding her house, but clearing the shrub and erecting a fence around her land, a quarter of an acre, where only the walls of an old mansion remain. Built by her grandfather who worked as a post master in Malaysia in 1930, the property is now owned by Ranjini, the only child in the family.

    “I lived here for over 35 years. My father, a cooperative officer who died three years ago, too lived in this house. I don't know how to rebuild this”, Ranjini said, leading us to the meda midula (central courtyard) where she played as a small child. The walls and the foundation are still strong, but only a few antique door and window frames have survived.

    Lack of labourers

    Ranjini regained her land in the HSZ on May 9, but is still struggling to clear the land due to the lack of labourers and the high daily wage they demand. A Cultural Officer attached to the Divisional Secretariat, she lives in a small rented house in Nallur and is very happy that she got her ancestral house back. Thanking the Government, she said none of them believed that they would ever get their properties back in their lifetime.

    Ranjini Kumarasingham at her ‘mansion’

    Since she is the only child in the family, unlike others in her village who receive dollars and euros from abroad, Ranjini has to fulfil her dream - rebuilding her old mansion - with her own savings, which is not enough at all. She hopes to apply for a loan soon.

    A young mother, Jeyavinthan Sasikala, the Grama Sevaka, works in a temporary office in the village. She said the common requests made by the newly resettled families are for electricity connections, water (cleaning of wells) and sanitation facilities.

    “I have already prepared the new voter list”, she said.

    Villagers who have already resettled were seen cleaning and rebuilding the ancient and sacred Hindu temple - Kollankalati Weerahatti Vinayagar Kovil - in the HSZ.

    The supermarkets which are common in other parts of the country have not yet made inroads in to these villages, but small boutiques are popping up, catering to the needs of villagers in their small way.

    Small boutique

    Vindu (24) had opened a small boutique some time ago, but now it is the most famous sillarai kadai in the village, selling everything from sugar and tea to fruits and vegetables to fancy items and cement.

    Jeyavinthan Sasikala

    Still not resettled in his father's house which would require full renovation, Vindu who started with a capital investment of Rs 5,000, now earns a daily profit of Rs 500 from his business.

    Making plans to better his future, Vindu hopes to welcome his bride in to his world once he is economically stable and the rebuilding of the house completed.

    Development work at Valikamam North and South, of Thellippalai in Jaffna is going on at full swing; the Government had spent over Rs. 34 million just to clear the overgrown 'jungle' to make them suitable for human habitation. The Government has taken many initiatives to facilitate the returnees in these two areas, which comprise a large extent of the HSZ, to restart their livelihoods.

    This facilitates a population of over 15,000 families who returned to Valikamam North and South that includes Thellippalai and Chunnakam in the HSZ, with land handed back to them.

    They work under the scorching sun. It seems as if the strong ultra violet rays of the sun will not hinder their courage, but will make their skin thicker and coarse. Once they enjoyed better lives, which were reduced to zero due to the brutal terror; they are now rebuilding their lives from scratch.

    Vindu’s boutique

    Outsiders, mostly members of the Tamil diaspora, clamoured for the release of the HSZ back to the people. It used to be a popular demand locally and on international stages, but the contribution to improve the livelihood of these people from the diaspora, which once heavily pumped its money to divide the peaceful Sri Lanka, has been dismally low.

    Life in the once “haunted” villages in the HSZ has begun anew with families gradually moving in. It is time to genuinely support this worthy cause, to help these people stand on their own feet.

    On our way back, we stopped at Thanabalasingham's house for a while.

    His wife, Gnaneshwari was busy cooking in the newly-painted kitchen. The lovely smell of her dishes made our mouths water. A moment later, the woman appeared in traditional colourful Indian saree, holding out a few masalai dosais for us.

    “Rahaida”, Gnaneshwari who is from Ankumbura, Matale, asked in faltering Sinhala. Her friendly smile made us feel at home. We felt the warmth of genuine friendship emerging between two communities which had been forcibly kept apart for nearly three decades.

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