Men in uniform, mainly young soldiers holding AK 47 rifles, are seen all around northern Sri Lanka, from Mannar in north-west to Mullaitivu, the last battlefield in the north-east. In Mullaitivu, there are said to be more soldiers than civilians.
This is the situation in the largely Tamil north of the island one-and-a-half-years after the end of the Sri Lankan Army’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed by the SLA in the last months of the conflict.
Before its defeat, the LTTE had waged an armed struggle for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Tamils have suffered systematic discrimination from the Sri Lankan state, which is dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority.
At the Omanthai military check point in Vavuniya district, passengers are stopped to have their ID checked. Those travelling from Vavuniya town, only four-to-five kilometres away, will have already had their ID card checked three times.
Those travelling from Jaffna — the capital of the Northern province — have their belongings searched.
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However, “everywhere” is not for “everyone”. At Omanthai checkpoint, foreigners are turned back if they don’t have clearance from the defence ministry. I phoned the ministry beforehand and was told I would be allowed to travel by land. At the checkpoint, however, I was turned away for lack of a pass to show.
Foreigners are generally only able to visit to Jaffna by air. It is little wonder they do not want foreigners to travel on the heavily militarised A9 road, which stretches out through the war-ravaged north.
The road from Mannar, the capital of the Mannar district, to Vavuniya also has many military posts. In Mannar district, armed soldiers stand on street corners of alleys or in the middle of the road in small villages as well as towns.
“Go that way”, “Come this way” and “Open your bag” are the only words in Sinhalese — the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority — that most Tamil villagers in the area understand. Soldiers stationed in the area speak hardly any Tamil.
With communication often impossible, checkpoints were dangerous during the war. Some people were seen for the last time at a checkpoint, never to return.
“My husband was seen last at the army checkpoint in 2007”, 33-year-old Anoja (name changed) told me. “The next day, I went to the checkpoint with my neighbour, who speaks Sinhalese, to ask where my husband was.
“A soldier told us we can come inside to check. We were scared, so we left.”
Anoja showed me all sorts of papers issued by police, the Human Rights Commission and human rights groups, to all of whom she has reported her husband’s case.
Another woman from the same village has been looking for her missing brother since 2007, when he was last seen at a checkpoint. The 35-year-old woman lost her mother, elder brother and sister when all were shot dead by the Sri Lankan Army in early 1990s.
The military’s heavy presence in the north has, ironically, grown drastically after the more than three-decades-long war ended.
However, the resettlement in the north of Tamil “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), which is supposed to be a top priority in the post-war era, is developing at a snail’s pace at best. About 300,000 Tamils were held in IDP camps at the end of the war.
All aid provided to help resettlement is overseen by the “commander in charge” of the area. Aid items have to go through army checkpoints set up at the entry of each resettled area.
Severe restrictions on NGOs and aid, which have left IDP camps vulnerable to disease and short on food, have now been extended into resettlement areas.
An aid worker in Vanni told me: “We were told by the area commander not to use vehicles with our organisation’s logo. Without the logo, we could bring in aid for the people.”
In “P” village in Mannar, thousands of people began to resettle almost one year ago. But most villagers have no means to cope with the rainy season. People are living in temporary housing made of tin sheeting provided by the International Organization for Migration.
When released from IDP camps, Tamils were given 25,000 rupee (about $224) by UNHCR. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) promised to provide basic food items for six months.
A woman from the village said: “Luckily, we were provided with food by WFP until August. It was more than six months.
“Now, we have sowed seeds provided by government for cultivation. [But] until the harvest in about four months’ time, we have no food.”
Some jobs have been available for villagers, such as cleaning public places, which pay about $4.5 per day. But it is far from sustainable work.
There are no medical facilities or electricity, other than solar lanterns provided by aid agency Caritas for some families with students.
Despite shortfalls, aid and government workers in the region agreed that “P” village is one of the best resettlement cases. Villagers and NGOs complain about the vicious restrictions on aid for the desperate population, complaints supported by government workers.
Sanjive (name changed), a 32-year-old field worker, said: “Some 150 families, who were resettled in and around Periamadu area, were given nothing. But the government hasn’t given permission to NGOs [to help].
“There’s no toilets for those resettled in August, while those who were resettled in September were given only roof materials.”
In early September, Suresh Premanchandra, an MP from the Tamil National Alliance, revealed that 255 families, or 1215 people, were prevented by the commander in charge at Mullaitivu from resettling in their place of origin.
No aid has been provided for these people, who are living in a school.
Another Tamil politician, Mano Ganeshan, said: “The government wants to keep Tamils desperate for years. This is so people will only be concerned with food and shelter, and they wont think of political or social rights.
“This is what has been going on in Palestine. Palestinians have lived in refugee camps for generations.”
It is not by accident that the most solid structure in “P” village is a military camp. When asked how she felt when she first arrived back in her hometown after being displaced for years and then detained in an IDP camp, 32-year-old Buddima (name changed), whispered: “Terrified.”
After a pause, she continued: “We are not getting used to living under the army control or being surrounded by them like this. This is terrible.”
The situation for those still in the IDP camps, meanwhile, appears to be becoming more primitive now that most IDPs have been released.
Statistics compiled by UNHCR put the number of IDPs released as of August 30 at 258,846. This indicates that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 IDPs are still detained in the camps.
The world community, appalled by the forced detention of hundreds of thousands of Tamils in barbed wire-surrounded camps, demanded the Sri Lankan government release people as quickly as possible. However, the situation for the IDPs after their release, as well as for those still in the camps, has not been closely monitored.
Those still in the camps say the conditions are inadequate. Rani (name changed), a 21-year-old woman held in the Zone 4 IDP camp, said: “[There have been] no more bowser supplies of [drinking] water since August. Electricity, which used to be available 24 hours-a-day, is now available only five hours each day.
“The army and GA [government agent, a local administrative worker] told us to move to a transit camp. But many of us rejected this because we’re afraid that the authorities will screen people again and take away youth on suspicion they are LTTE.”
Rani was allowed out of the camp for 10 days at the end of September. She said one man who returned after his allowed 10 days was severely beaten by soldiers.
She said: “I learned that he had to look after his ailing parents, who were transferred in Colombo. That’s why he returned late.”
Another IDP from Zone 4 camp, 35-year-old Sara (name changed), complained about shortages of food and other necessities. “I often eat rice and dhal only”, she said, “no vegetables or other items provided”.
Sara, who has lost all her family members and is alone in the camp, said the camp had stopped providing soap three months ago.
The accounts by Sara and Rani backed up a report in June from United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The report said: “Food commodities for IDPs donated by the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] came to an end on 31 May ... Drinking water distribution shortfalls [are] possible at the end of July.”
One-and-a-half years after one of Asia’s longest wars ended, the Sri Lankan government does not seem to be taking its claim of seeking “reconciliation” with the island’s Tamils seriously. Rather, President Mahinda Rajapakse has focused on keeping his family’s power intact, leaving root cause of the brutal conflict intact.
A constitutional reform passed on September 8 is a prime example. It removed presidential term limits and authorised the president to appoint the heads of all independent commissions.
Rohan Edrisinha, a professor of Colombo University, said the reform “was introduced without any public notice, discussion or consultation. It is very regressive on ethnic issues as well.”
Having been the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing against the Tamil minority, the island is now being transformed into the Rajapakse family’s personal kingdom. There is no guarantee that, with the regime seeking to strengthen its grip on power and the ongoing mistreatment of Tamils, the ever present guns will remain silent.