KURUMBASIDDY, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The civil war in northern Sri Lanka ended more than a decade ago, but Shan Raj’s ancestral home is still surrounded by a fence of barbed wire.
Every year, Raj comes all the way from Australia to his home village of Kurumbasiddy, near the once war-torn city of Jaffna, with the hope of being able to visit the 11-room house his father built alongside the family-owned rice mill.
He has not been inside his childhood home since June 1990.
That was when his family’s property, along with that of more than 100 families living in the area 395km (245 miles) north of the capital Colombo, was declared part of a high-security zone during the conflict.
“For me, as a person settled abroad, returning to my land would be about my emotional satisfaction,” Raj, a 44-year-old father of two, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, gazing at his home through barbed wire on the side of the road.
“I still hope that one day we would be able to take the little ones to our ancestral home to play hide and seek along the balconies and staircases, to run around the mango trees, and to celebrate the Thai Pongal (harvest festival) in our portico.”
After the war between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009, the government released swathes of land owned by Tamils that had been occupied during the fighting.
In Jaffna, more than 3,000 acres - about 12% of the land that was occupied - are still under military and police control, according to data from the city government.
While landowners in the country lobby the government to release the rest of their land, Tamils who moved out of the country to escape the war or to start a new life after it ended say they have no voice in the fight to reclaim their property.
For many expatriates, the most they can do is visit the country at least once a year to request their land be returned.
But even some of those who have reclaimed their land have to make regular trips back home to ensure their property is not claimed by anybody else in their absence, locals say.
Residents in Jaffna and expats said they had heard reports of land returned to Tamils living abroad being occupied by locals or sold illegally by fraudsters to outside buyers.
“There have been incidents where some lands are encroached because there are no owners (living) in Jaffna,” M. Arulkumaran, a local councillor at Jaffna municipal council, said in a phone interview.
“Meanwhile some lands have been sold with forged documents when those involved are certain that the owners will not come (back) in the near future. Already there are a number of court cases filed on such illegal land grabbing,” he added.
Locals noted that most Tamils living abroad make sure their returned lands are properly taken care of either by appointing a relative or a reliable person to oversee the properties.
Military spokesman Brigadier Chandana Wickremesinghe said that the military remained stationed in the north and was holding onto remaining land for “tactical moves and national security”.
“The government has released whatever land it can release without compromising national security,” he said in a phone interview.
The house where Raj was born and raised now sits neglected and dilapidated, the rice mill nearby is missing windows and doors, its walls covered in large neem and tamarind trees and ipil-ipil trees are growing inside it.
The only sign that the army was once using the property are the empty sentry points towering above the house.
Before Raj’s father died in 2006, he had filed a case with Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court against the seizure of the land.
And, over the years, the family has completed numerous forms whenever government officials collect information on the land it still holds, Raj explained.
Still, his father’s dying wish for the family to reclaim its land remains unfulfilled, Raj lamented.
“We need the house and the rice mill back. Those are places that help us relive the fond memories of my late father,” he said.
According to human rights groups, up to 100,000 Sri Lankans were killed and more than 300,000 people, mainly Tamils, displaced in the 26-year civil war.
The LTTE was demanding a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils in the island nation’s north and east.
After the military’s defeat of the rebel group, it returned some of the land back to the original Tamil owners, but kept the rest to use for agriculture, tourism and other commercial ventures, according to locals and land rights activists.
Former President Maithripala Sirisena had vowed to return all private land held by the military by the end of 2018.
Ruki Fernando, adviser to INFORM, a human rights group in Colombo, said “there is no understanding amongst politicians, government officials and the military that for rural communities, land is not just something with economic value.”
“It is deeply connected to their way of life and history - (their) religion, culture, food, water, and livelihood,” he said.
Locals in and around Jaffna said that the government has offered alternative plots to some displaced families whose land remains in the high-security zone.
Although land and human rights experts predict the military is unlikely to ever release the land in that zone, locals said most of the landowners have rejected the government’s offer as they would rather farm land they are familiar with.
“We still want our land because the only job my husband knows is fishing. He can’t do any other job,” said Ravichandran Kalaivani, a 47-year-old woman who has been living at the Sabapathy refugee camp for most of the past 30 years.
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the government has been systematically and methodically returning land to displaced Tamils whenever it can.
“It is not a question of releasing land,” he said in a phone interview. “It is a question of not compromising national security. We are not ready to give any lapses in national security.”
But for Sellathurai Sivapatham, land is a question of family pride.
Sivapatham, 75, had built three houses for himself, his son and his daughter on a quarter of a hectare (0.63 acres) of land, about 200 metres (656 feet) from the high-security zone boundary in Kurumbasiddy.
He finished building in 1977, then fled the civil war six years later. He hasn’t seen his houses since.
Sivapatham made a trip back to Kurumbasiddy early this year from Pennsylvania, where he had worked in the restaurant business, with the aim of claiming his family’s land through legal means.
Like other Tamil expatriate land owners, he had already gone through the formality of repeatedly providing all the details of his land in writing to the Sri Lankan government, with no success.
So, he decided to sue the government. “I really want to get my house back this time,” he said over the phone.
“But when I went to the lawyer, he laughed and said it was impossible to sue.”
Sivapatham gave up the idea of taking the government to court. But he remains optimistic that, one day, he will be able to return to his home.
“I am going to wait until they return the land,” he said.
Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org
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