The gates of the 59 Division Mullaitivu Security Forces Headquarters dominate the view 10 kilometres inwards from the Nandikadal lagoon and the Eastern coast. The protest tent a few metres away appears particularly small next to this towering presence. On March 1, the residents of Keppapilavu had been protesting for one year inside this tent. They are asking for the right to return to their ancestral lands, which lie within the bounds of the military complex.

Identified as one of the island’s most militarised areas, with nearly 60,000 troops (25% of the country's active military personnel) stationed in the district, large swathes of land in Mullaitivu remain under military occupation, denying citizens of their ancestral lands and livelihood in the name of ‘national security’. Most recently, an RTI request revealed that 600 acres near the Nandikadal lagoon were being allocated for the SLNS Gotabaya camp, a move that was met with resistance from residents awaiting resettlement to that area.

Pilakudiyiruppu, released in March 2017.

Resettlement has raised fresh challenges, and without support from the ministries or the individuals responsible for the displacement. Pilakudiyiruppu is a village close to Keppapilavu that was being occupied by the Air Force. Residents took to the main road to demand the return of their land. They had been engaged in this struggle for a month, occasionally blocking vehicles on the route, when the land was released back to them. It has been one year since they were allowed to return home, though this process has been a challenging one.

Of the 54 families whose lands were released in Pilakudiyiruppu, only 10 returned to claim their properties. Others continue residing in the Keppapilavu model village, where livelihood and agriculture is not possible. Subramaniam Thiruchelvam and Thiruchelvam Parvathi are the one family that live permanently in this area, in a small shelter built on the land they used to call home, one year after resettlement.

‘We had only just built our house when we were displaced from the area. Now, only the foundation and the pillars of the fence remain of the house that we knew - everything else has been destroyed. This place we live in now and our home garden, is all built with our own money.’

He goes out to work as a labourer, bringing in a daily wage, while she tends to the multitude of plants in her home garden that also help earn an income. Without these two sources of livelihood, it would be very difficult for them to manage.

The cost to clear the thick jungle and build new shelter is more than most families can afford. In addition, Pilakudiyiruppu’s location in relation to the town centre of Mullaitivu makes it difficult for families to access services and security for their children. There are three buses in the day – at 7.30am and 12.45pm toward Mullaitivu town and at 4pm to Jaffna that pass through the area. These timings and their unreliability make going to school a challenge. Security is an added concern for the female-headed households in particular, and for these reasons they continue to live in the Keppapilavu model village.

‘‘We fed our children for two decades. Now that they have grown up to have families of their own, we are rebuilding to feed ourselves. I am planting things – flowers, melons, chillies, pomegranate, and tending to our villard mango mtree. We are beginning our lives again. We fought for our land, all of us, and those who got it back should stay there permanently. Our grandchildren should be able to know where their grandparents lived, where they had their homes.’

Inside the gate of the Security Forces Headquarters: on the left, released land and on the right, the Army camp.

In December 2017, nine months after the protest had begun, 133 acres of land in Keppapilavu were released. There was some concern surrounding this release, as the army received a large sum in compensation from the Ministry of Resettlement in order to relocate their camp.

Somasekaram Balraj’s house was situated within the newly-released area. While some of his community have returned home on one side, a section of the military camp remains on the other.

‘The foundation of my old house still remains. You can see the sitting area, the kitchen and the rooms. But the structure I am now living in was built by the military, for their purposes. I came here to find dirt, debris and snakes in the place I was supposed to live in. They left the well dirty and polluted, but have provided me with a motor so that I can use it again. The government does not provide any assistance if the army is seen to have built a house.’

He says it is unclear as to who destroyed the house in the first place – whether it was the LTTE during the time of combat, or the army as they established their base.

‘The land here used to have an abundant yield, and I have begun to clear and cultivate peanuts in the area behind my house. Fruit trees bearing banana and ‘karutha kolamban’ mangoes grew in abundance when we lived here, and we are tending to them again. We depend on three months of rain water for all our crops, because this area is so dry.’

Balraj says that when he left, he took only a shopping bag with things he needed most. Though the life they lead was not luxurious, they had everything they needed. To rebuild now, after decades of displacement, is not possible for those who do not have a fair amount of savings.

The struggle for the village of Keppapilavu extends back a decade from this particular protest. Displaced in 2008 to the Menik Farm camp and brought back to the area in 2012, the residents were first ‘assigned’ another village in the jungles of Seeniyamottai. This change in scenery and landscape did not allow them to carry out their generations-old livelihood, which mainly consisted of cultivation and fishing. Determined to return to their original homes, they refused that village and demanded proper resettlement. They were then taken to another town, where a signboard had already been placed. They erased it, demanding to be taken to their actual lands in Keppapilavu.

The construction of the Headquarters over their village resulted in the complete destruction of their houses, schools, places of worship, public spaces and the environment that they depended on for livelihood and survival. Residents recount the coconut, jak and mango trees on their properties that they had previously used to earn a living, things that had made their home gardens special to each of them.

One of the protesters, Jayaseeli, is a mother of two, and her mother is well into her eighties. She wonders if she will be able to die on her own land, as she wishes – or whether death will come while their struggle is still ongoing.

‘My husband and I both have to work in labour jobs, otherwise my kids might not even have the one meal that they do currently. We have never borrowed money from anyone before, but now we find ourselves begging others for water or walking for miles in the hot sun and dirt to find it. Then the government goes to Geneva and tells a completely different story. The people living in the cities need to come here and see what life is like for us.’

The local police have gone to court against the people of Keppapilavu for carrying out the protest. Recently, on the 70th anniversary of Independence, the residents held a protest waving black flags. Some of them were arrested, on the grounds of ‘disturbing the peace of the military’.

Chandraleela travelled to Colombo to meet Minister of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs, D.M Swaminathan, to tell him about their struggle.

‘He said that they will release the land in three phases. The first one was last December, and we hope the other two will be soon as well. When we asked him why it is taking so long, we were told that the Resettlement Ministry could not make this decision – the final word for release had to come from the Ministry of Defense. We are told by the forces that we should be grateful for the amount they have released so far, but when our homes are still under occupation, how can we be grateful?’

She notes the pattern in which militarisation continues in their area and across occupied areas in the country. After 2009, families were resettled in the area bordering one side of the Nandikadal lagoon, though far away from the water. The land here is hard and dry, inadequate for the home gardening and farming of small animals that they used to engage in. The area that allows direct access to the lagoon, essential for fishermen and for cultivation, remains under military control.

"They are keeping fertile land that we used for income, planting trees and farms of their own and profiting off the goods. Where they first used weapons to destroy our homes and communities, now they have come to destroy our livelihoods.”

When the protest had persisted for three months last May, residents were offered Rs. 5 million as compensation, though they did not specify where this money was to come from. It was offered on the condition that they left their protest and resettled in the villages around Seeniyamottai and Vattappalai that had been assigned to them. This involved giving up ownership of their land and their protest against the military occupation. Having lived here for four generations, building their livelihoods and a sense of community, they refused that money in favour of carrying out their protest, as they want to make sure their children can live in Keppapilavu as they did.

As the protest crossed the one-year mark, people are firm in their resolve to regain what is rightfully theirs. They are prepared to stay in this tent, until their land is released. Older residents who have lost their entire families in the war say that they will die protesting the right to return to their lands.

This site is one of many citizen-led resistance movements that are being staged in the Northern and Eastern provinces that activists have documented on Groundviews over the last year. As the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council are being held in Geneva, it is crucial that the statements or promises made by the Government on the international stage are critically examined in light of these ground realities.

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