Jaffna: Joseph Rasanayagam jumped on his bicycle as soon as he heard rumours the army would be handing back his ancestral land in Sri Lanka’s battle-scarred north to mark a visit by the United Nations chief.
But when the 59-year-old fisherman arrived at a major military compound in Jaffna, soldiers turned him away — dashing his hopes of finally returning home.
“I can see my land over the (military) fence but I can’t access it until it’s released,” Rasanayagam said.
“For more than 26 years I lived in seven IDP (internally displaced people) camps,” said Rasanayagam, who recently decided to move his wife and four children into a relative’s house, where they are crammed into a single room.
Sri Lanka’s army has occupied thousands of hectares in the Jaffna peninsula — the heartland of the country’s Tamil minority — and elsewhere in the north since the end in 2009 of a decades-long conflict with Tamil separatist rebels.
Last year it began returning plots to their original owners.
But progress has been agonisingly slow for many, especially for the thousands still living in miserable displacement camps. The camps flood during the monsoon rains and their tin roofs are unbearably hot in summer.
Many are banking on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help push the process along, with his visit to the island this week expected to focus on resettlement issues still outstanding since the end of the war.
“We want to give a petition to him to intervene and get our land back,” Rasanayagam said of Ban, who is due late Wednesday in the capital. “There are about 100 people from my village who are going to sign this.” The UN secretary-general will meet President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in January last year on a promise to promote reconciliation with the ethnic Tamil minority.
Jaffna locals have been told Ban will also visit a village on their peninsula, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo, that was recently handed back by the military.
And he is expected to inspect about 100 small houses currently being built by the army on state land for Tamils whose own homes were destroyed in the fighting.
Rasanayagam must wait a while longer for his case to be addressed. He was forced to flee in 1990 with almost nothing when shelling and fighting erupted between troops and Tamil rebels in his village.
His land is among vast tracts still being used by the military and declared part of a high-security zone.
Activists say he is among about 100,000 still without their own homes seven years after the war ended with a final military push that claimed thousands of lives. (AFP)
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