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Resettlement: Stagnation defeats credibility

By Somapala Gunadheera

(June 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The internal displacement from Jaffna after Riviresa was roughly equal in number to the current displacement from the Vanni. The displaced Jaffna population returned to the peninsula on foot, despite obstruction by the LTTE, over a period of two weeks. They were about 250,000 in number.

The returnees were first led to Vembady where a round the clock kitchen was in operation. After they were fed they rested at the school for less than a day before they were taken home after a casual check of their premises by the Army for explosive devises. The manpower required for a thorough check was not there but the ground situation was such that the risk of land mines in private premises was minimal, unlike in the present situation where the retreating LTTE may have mined the field extensively.

There were no seed onions and eggs to begin with. Seeds and pullets were air-lifted and distributed. Schools, hospitals and the University started functioning. Civilians did not dare to come from the South to help due to the presence of the LTTE in between and within. The only civilian, who volunteered to help me at site, was killed in a suicide attack. Until the civil administration returned and achieved normalcy help came only from the Army and a few ex-army men. But the basic resettlement process was over in less than a month’s time and Jaffna was back to its normal busy life. After the next season, she was shipping onions to the South.

Security concerns

Security concerns are not only relevant but also essential considerations in the present context. The Government cannot afford to risk the danger of saboteurs mingling themselves with the normal population. But this time around the authorities have all the freedom and facilities to identify the dangerous elements inside the Refugee Camps (RC) leisurely. Riviresa operators did not have that advantage.

Stopping the thousands that were marching towards Jaffna until the trouble makers were identified and separated would have created pandemonium, including the necessity to construct massive infrastructure. As for spotting infiltrations, the army had to make do with home grown rules of the thumb. I later learnt that ‘Goni Billas’ had been planted upstairs in buildings on the way of the human deluge winding its way to Jaffna. Their job was to identify trouble-makers and anyone identified by two or more ‘Billas’ was taken out of the procession.

There is no objection to holding back culprits in the RC. But innocents must be given freedom of movement at the earliest possible opportunity. That is the best way to win their hearts and minds, so essential to make ‘unitary’ Sri Lanka united. The census of population concluded the other day is reported to have brought the dispersed families together. As I have already suggested elsewhere, that process should be completed by putting together families from the same area, managed by the village level officials who were in charge of them at home. A management committee consisting of these officials and nominees of the dwellers would be an asset in identifying masquerading trouble-makers among them.

The first positive step of releasing the refugees from the RC has already been taken. That is the release of the senior citizens. The next could be an arrangement for kith and kin who are interested in taking charge of inmates to take them away. Once the credentials of the applicants have been checked, they may be permitted to take away their relatives and friends on a prescribed bond to take responsibility for their charges. In the meantime, authorities should satisfy themselves about the suitability of the persons concerned to leave the RC. This move should grant a measure of relief to the overcrowded structures.

De-mining operation

It appears from the pattern of resettlement up to now that the plan is to follow the path of retreat of the LTTE. If so the process is bound to be protracted. Only two conditions need be satisfied before an inmate is allowed to go home.

1. Personal credentials have to be checked for the safety of the State.

2. Destination has to be checked for explosive devises for the person’s own safety.

It is presumed that the first step has been completed by now. The de=mining process which is handled by the Army, is supposed to be completed more than half way, according to the papers. Only no information is available on the locations of cleared areas. The immediate need is to put the refugees in their lands, as they are cleared.

It is suggested that mine clearing be undertaken in concentric circles of one kilometer radius with the existing Army Camps as the epicenter. Once a circle is cleared, residents of the villages within that circle can be moved in. The entire Vanni will be safe only after the respective demining circles meet but by that time the bulk of the refugees would have been settled in their own homes in the previously cleared circles. In the meantime all the ambitious facilities being created round the temporary RC should come up in their rightful permanent location so that they would be available to serve the returning IDPs as they arrive.

The rehabilitation in the Vanni appears to follow a pattern which is necessarily time consuming. The delay is causing apprehensions at home and abroad and the impression is being created that there was an ulterior motive behind the stagnation. Apparently the authorities want to do a perfect job. They are busy starting vocational training centers, sports, IT education and infrastructure like additional hospitals in the RC. There is no doubt that these and much more are essential concomitants in rehabilitation but the immediate need is resettlement. All other activities except education are best started at the ultimate destinations of the displaced. The time and energy spent on rehabilitation activities are best diverted to the resettlement process.

Planning the home coming

If the policy initiative is changed to "Resettlement now and rehabilitation later" I believe that the refugees could be back at home within the next three months. Expediting the process, calls for a settlement plan with a time frame. This has to be drawn up in coordination with the Army as mine clearing is the bottom-line of the exercise.

Army Camps forming the epicenter of the demining circles would have an estimate of when each circle could be occupied. Officers responsible for the respective refugee camps should be continuously in touch with the Army to fine-tune the programme of resettling their charges. They should also be responsible for revamping the infrastructure of the final destination basically so that it would be ready by the time the refugees arrive. But the bulk of reconstruction is best left for implementation with the participation of the local residents as they return.

Communication is of the essence to the resettlement plan. Once it is drawn up, the refugees should be kept informed of its time frame and progress of its implementation. This would give them information on which they can plan their own future with confidence. Uncertainty creates tensions that may be exploited by interested parties. The negative propaganda that is spreading here and abroad appears to stem from tensions of uncertainty. It is further enhanced by another form of lack of information on the part of the outsiders.

That raises another contentious issue, restrictions on entry to the RC. The anxiety of the Government to keep the RC free of infiltration and adverse publicity has to be appreciated, particularly after a massive military operation. The security authorities are exclusively privy to the underlying security risks. That said, they must try to go that extra mile to make the RC accessible to all parties with a genuine interest in visiting them. That would further enhance the value of their own achievement in ending the war.

The reluctance to open out the Camps may arise from the presence of miscreants among the refugees. The solution would be to sort them out on a priority basis. Once identified or suspected, they should be housed separately from the normal inmates. This would enable the authorities to open the RC to visitors with confidence. Such accessibility would remove one of the most damaging stigmas attached to the RC. On their part visitors should make it an understanding of honour not to make use of the visit for narrow political purposes or to fish in troubled waters.

Facile dictu

It is always easier to find fault with what is being done than to do it oneself. Most people who run down the RC do not offer any constructive criticism as to how they could be improved. Even Ban Ki Moon did not specify the ‘appalling conditions’ he observed in the Camps; nor did he identify the better Camps he had seen elsewhere. Managing a refugee settlement of nearly 300,000 inmates is no child’s play. On the civilian side it is as massive an operation as the final battle against the LTTE. This mammoth undertaking deserves encouragement and guidance, not impulsive condemnation and amorphous deprecation.

In the background of my involvement with the Jaffna refugee operation, I would sum up my suggestions for upgrading the Vavuniya RC administration as follows:

· Sort out the inmates by place of residence

· Security clear them as a matter of first priority

· Separate the cleared population from those under a cloud

· Permit their kith and kin who take responsibility for them to take them away

· Manage the classified Camps through a committee of inmates’ nominees and their normal village level officers

· Expedite the mine clearing operations by aligning them with the existing Army Camps

· Let there be liaison between the managing committee and the demining operation

· Prepare a time-based Resettlement Plan

· Make the Plan known to the inmates and the world outside

· Grant priority to resettlement over rehabilitation

· Make the RC as accessible as possible to genuine visitors

· Revamp infrastructure at the point of destination without wasting funds and energy at the place of temporary accommodation

· Don’t leave room for foreigners to tell us how to resettle our own people

All in all, what is important is not to maintain a state-of-the-art RC but to close it down post-haste.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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