The releasing of land held by the army has been given wide publicity both by the Government and the military in recent times. However, while the process has been welcomed, not everyone is really happy. Some families who have been given their land back have little or nothing to go back to.
A group of journalist from Colombo and a few from Jaffna were taken to Palaly last week for a briefing by the military on the land released so far in Jaffna.
The journalists were also taken on a guided tour to a few areas in Palaly to see for themselves the land which has been given back to the rightful owners.
What they saw was not all that rosy. A few families who had returned to some of the land released by the army were in tiny shelters with no basic amenities.
V.A Mariyapuram, who had returned to the land given back to her in Valalai, had virtually nothing to come back to. She, her parents, and her child were seated inside a shed in which they could not stand or move around. They are waiting for the authorities to build them a house but so far all they have is a foundation and four concrete posts around it.
Mariyapuram said that she had come to the land which was set free by the army, with her parents, hoping they can resume a decent life. However she said she was disappointed when she found all that was left was dry land, no house or basic sanitary facilities.
Mariyapuram said that while the foundation and corner posts were constructed in her land by the authorities for a house, the walls have yet to be built.
When she had asked the authorities why the walls have not yet been constructed, she had been told that cement stones were still being produced so it will take time.
“It is good that our land has been released. But then how can we live like this. We have nothing here. The authorities must think a bit more before asking us to come back to our land,” she said.
Mariyapuram’s father, a fisherman by profession, said that they suffered as a result of the war but even now they are still suffering with no proper roof over their heads.
Several empty sheds were seen surrounding the one in which Mariyapuram and his family was staying. When asked why the sheds were empty, Mariyapuram said that the families who had returned to the land after it was released by the army, had abandoned the place as there is no electricity, water or other facilities in the area.
Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Nandana Udawatte said that all the army can do is release the lands and anything beyond that is up to the relevant Government authorities.
The army says that several acres of land in the North, including in Palaly, have been released but in most places people have yet to return and reclaim their property.
An army official who briefed the journalists in Palaly said that most people have not returned to their land as they are either abroad or have settled elsewhere.
Fifty three camps closed
The army says high security zones in Jaffna have been reduced since 2009 when the war came to an end and at present 93 army camps remain in the area after 53 were closed in stages.
In 1996 the Palaly high security zone, which covers the Palaly air force base, was expanded as a result of the ever increasing threat from the LTTE.
However with the end of the war, the army says it had reduced even the Palaly high security zone, while maintaining control over areas required in the interest of National security.
Since 2009 the military has released 6258.38 acres of land in Palaly in stages and now the army controls 5371.34 acres of land in the area.
Overall in Jaffna, the army says 19159.38 acres of land has been returned to the rightful owners since 2009.
Major General Nandana Udawatte said that more land will be released in future but that will be done based on the requirements at the time.
“We cannot say exactly how much will be released in future but we will certainly look at it positively,” he said.
He also noted that no one can predict the future and if there is a requirement to bring additional troops to Jaffna then there needs to be adequate space in Palaly to keep them.
Udawatte also said that in some places where land has been set free small army camp remain near civilian homes in order to ensure the security of the area.
Meanwhile the army also insisted that there was no security threat to the Jaffna peninsula following the January eighth Presidential elections.
Nandana Udawatte also denied reports that additional troops had been deployed in Jaffna following the recent protests over the rape and murder of a girl in the area.
The protest in the Jaffna town turned violent with stones being pelted towards the police and the Jaffna Courts Complex. Udawatte said that the police continue to maintain security in Jaffna and that the military is not involved in civilian administration.
Udawatte also insisted that the Sri Lanka army is a much disciplined unit and rejected attempts to link troops to the alleged heavy use of drugs or heroin in Jaffna after 2009.
Army commander visits Jaffna
Meanwhile, Army Commander Lieutenant General Crishanthe De Silva on Thursday delivered his first formal address to the troops, serving the Security Force Headquarters – Jaffna (SFHQ-J) upon his assumption of office as Commander of the Army in February, this year.
The day’s itinerary got underway after Major General Nandana Udawatte warmly received the visiting Army Chief on arrival, the army media unit said. In accordance with military formalities, he reviewed the Guard Turnout at the entrance to the SFHQ-J premises and afterwards the Guard of Honour, accorded to him. He received the salute from the SFHQ-J troops after reviewing of the parade.
The visiting Army Chief during subsequent separate meetings with Major General Nandana Udawatte, General Officers Commanding of all Divisions, Brigades and Units clearly but briefly, spelt out his vision for the Army under his command and shared views with those senior officers before he met more than 1000 other rankers.
Later on, the Commander took a field visit in order to inspect the renovation and construction site of the ‘Isolation Ward’ of the Palaly Military Hospital in Vasavilan where soldiers affected with infectious diseases are treated due to sanitary precautions. Lieutenant General De Silva paused at the site and had a close look at the construction site where he exchanged a few words with those, engaged in the project.
On his way back, the Commander, called at the Corporals’ Club at the Security Forces Headquarters Jaffna (SFHQ-J) premises and inquired into facilities available.
During his first troop address at the SFHQ-J, the Commander underlined the importance of collective commitment for work sans divisions, best discipline at all levels as Army personnel, maintenance of proper coordination for communication and continuation of excellent dedicated services of SFHQ-J troops in the peninsula. He also pointed out the need to maintain excellent relations with civilians in respective areas and launch projects that could be implemented to promote social harmony, understanding and reconciliation in the region.
Planting of a tree sapling in the SFHQ-J premises, group photo taking as memories of the Commander’s visit to the SFHQ-J and an all rank lunch were also included in the day’s programme. As the second leg of the programme, the Commander made a trip down to the 51 Division Headquarters, 523 Brigade Headquarters and 11 Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment Headquarters respectively and interacted with officers and other rankers serving those formations.
Giving importance and memory to the visit, Major General Nandana Udawatte, Commander, SFHQ-J presented a memento to the visiting Commander of the Army before his departure back home to Colombo.
Text and pictures by Easwaran Rutnam in Jaffna