Reporting from Keppapulavu, Mullaitivu

For over two weeks now, families from a remote village in Mullaitivu have been camping outside an Air Force base, demanding the return of their lands. Displaced many times during the Civil War, detained in Menik Farm for three years, and awaiting the release of their homes since, protesters insist they won’t budge until their demands are met.

While mainstream media coverage has been meagre, images and videos of protests outside a 500-acre Air Force camp in Pilakudiyiruppu, Keppapulavu have flooded social media. The protests began on January 31, when villagers were allegedly told that 42 acres of land belonging to them would be released ‒ though this never transpired.

Having previously conducted hunger strikes and other manners of protest to no avail, Pilakudiyiruppu residents have vowed to remain until their lands are formally released. The protest has since snowballed into a larger movement, with solidarity protests cropping up at the Jaffna Central Bus Station, the Eastern University in Trincomalee, and even by the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement in Negombo. Meanwhile, the All Island Tamil Teachers’ Union said on February 11 that they would go on strike if protester demands were not met.

Relying on funds from NGOs and donors both at home and in the diaspora, protesters have constructed makeshift shacks, cooking stations, and toilets ‒ insisting that they will not leave until their lands are released. Around 84 families from Pilakudiyiruppu are currently stationed in front of the Air Force base occupying their village. Most of the prominent protest leaders are women, with around 30 of the families present being women-headed households.

Children too, have become a fixture at the protests, seen playing in nearby fields, singing songs and even attending classes ‒ thanks to regular visits by four teachers from Mullaitivu’s Department of Education and other volunteers. One of the community leaders, Chandraleela (40), a former teacher and President of the Keppapulavu Women’s Rural Development Society, estimates that there are at least 54 school-going children at the site.

Women have been on the frontlines of the struggle. Image courtesy Tamil Guardian

The protest has so far been visited by members of the Tamil National Alliance, the Northern Provincial Council, women’s groups, clergy, and even a delegation of displaced from Sampur, who came to express their solidarity. Politicians from the south, however, have been silent until now.

On February 14, Mullaitivu Government Agent R. Ketheeswaran told Roar that she was contacted by Minister of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs D. M. Swaminathan who, claiming to have spoken to President Sirisena, assures that occupied land will be release “soon”.

Today, (February 15), as the protest entered its third week, it was reported that President Sirisena had instructed Army Commander A. W. J. C. De Silva to release land to the residents of Keppapulavu. The commander had reportedly agreed to do so, but again, no release date has been specified.

Displacing The Displaced

Keppapulavu is both the name of the Grama Niladhari Division and a village within it. Image courtesy writer

Tales of displacement over the course of the island’s ugly Civil War are not uncommon in this part of Mullaitivu. Following the end of the war in 2009, displaced families from the Keppapulavu Grama Niladhari Division ‒ which consists of the villages of Sooripuram, Seeniyamottai, Keppapulavu, and Pilakudiyiruppu were rounded up and detained in the notorious Menik Farm.

Many of these same families were witness to the final harrowing moments of the Civil War. Some still carry with them scars and disabilities from atrocities committed in 2009, while many more tell stories of dead or disappeared loved ones. When Menik Farm was finally closed in 2012, IDPs were allegedly released by the roadside and forced to find shelter at local schools and churches.

Eventually, over 100 families from Keppapulavu Division were taken to a jungle area in Seeniyamottai to be resettled in a ‘model village’. Through the efforts of local community and some military assistance, the jungle was cleared and the area now resembles a relatively functioning village, though poverty is high and most houses are in a state of decay ‒ not having been built with the intention to last this long.

However, Chandraleela says that many of the families in the model village have a history of displacement that predates their internment at Menik Farm and resettlement at Seeniyamottai. She and other residents say that while Keppapulavu Division was traditionally cultivated by at least seven generations of locals, many of its current residents are displaced Tamils who were settled by the LTTE.

Says Chandraleela, “Many of the families in Sooripuram are originally Up-Country Tamils who fled anti-Tamil pogroms and JVP insurrections to be resettled by the LTTE. Most of the others in Keppapulavu Division are families who were displaced from the Kent and Dollar Farm.”*

A map drawn by protesters showing plots of occupied lands and the names of families who claim them. Image courtesy writer.

While a few of these families claim to possess deeds to their lands, most seen protesting outside the Air Force base in Pilakudiyiruppu have permits granted to them by the Assistant Government Agent of Mullaitivu District in 2005, at the request of LTTE officials. A map drawn by protesters and displayed at the site demarcates plots of land and the names of families who were permitted to settle there.

Subsistence Struggles

Over 50 children are also taking part in the protest, many of them have never seen their ancestral land. Image courtesy Tamil Guardian

Perhaps the most immediate grievance of families demanding their land back is the poor socio-economic situation at the model village ‒ which many claim was meant to be temporary. The residents of the Keppapulavu Division are traditionally farmers and fishermen and thus recall the assets they had on their original land, including the exact numbers of jackfruit, coconut, and mango trees, as well as cattle that they possessed.

Compared to lands in the model village at Seeniyamottai, families say the lands occupied by the military are rich in natural resources, being fertile enough for cultivation, having a number of ground wells to draw water from, and also being closer to the sea for fishing. Some families claim that the military itself is involved in cultivating and profiting off of these lands, while also building additional structures to accommodate military families.

The relative infertility of the model village’s soil is compounded by the fact that most of those resettled were compensated with only a quarter acre of land, compared to their original plots which were, in some cases, up to six acres in size.

Father Dixon, an Anglican priest based in the north says, “A quarter acre is simply not enough for making a living through cultivation. These people are traditionally subsistence farmers, not Government workers; their livelihood requires ample land to cultivate.”

Locals also complain of inadequate water and sanitation facilities in the model village. Leonard Mesiar (44), whose family resided in Keppapulavu village for generations before displacement, claims that each house had a well of its own, while in the model village, communal wells are found on every other street.

Leonard Mesiar holds the deeds for his family’s land occupied by the military, while standing in front of his house at a model village in Seeniyamottai. Image courtesy writer

“Up to 10 families or more rely on the communal wells for all their needs. Whether it’s for drinking or cooking, washing clothes or bathing, these are the only sources of water we have. Naturally, overuse has polluted this water too, making our situation even worse,” says Mesiar.

Mesiar bitterly recalls life before displacement: “When we lived on our traditional lands we survived on cattle and cultivation alone. We had everything from coconuts to rice to tamarind. But now we travel miles to Puthukkudiyiruppu and spend Rs. 10,000 a year just to lease land to cultivate.”

“Back then we were independent, the only thing we ever bought was the clothes on our backs,” he says.

Brewing Troubles

Women and children take a break from the protest under the shade of a nearby tree. Image courtesy writer.

The economic struggles that come with displacement have also had an adverse impact on communal harmony. According to Mesiar, the lack of access to employment means that some locals have taken to illegally brewing kasippu (moonshine), which, in turn, has fuelled youth delinquency and alcoholism and a general feeling of cultural decay.

Displaced residents in the model village say that 40 litres of kasippu is easily made with 50 kgs of sugar and some yeast. This concoction is then diluted with another 40 litres of water before being sold for Rs. 500 per litre. The relative affordability of the ingredients (a kilo of sugar is around Rs. 90 – 100) compared to the stiff sale price, has made illicit brewing a profitable enterprise.

Says Mesiar, “Kasippu brewers can be found almost everywhere here. Some people hide their stock behind pictures of Hindu gods, covered in cloth and flowers to avoid detection. Locals use code names like ‘idli’ to refer to kasippu and vendors send signals with their lights when the product is available.”

The perceived dangers posed by youth delinquency, alcoholism, drug use, and occupying military personnel means that many women are afraid to go out at night due to potential harassment. With a 1 km main road cutting through Keppapulavu closed due to the presence of the 59th Division of the Army, locals have to take a 4 km detour to reach farming lands ‒ a prospect that women are uncomfortable with.

This, according to Chandraleela, has disrupted traditional modes of labour, which often include women and children. Some women have now chosen to travel south to the Free Trade Zone to find work, while men continue to traverse over 10 km in search of work in neighbouring Puthukkudiyiruppu. Meanwhile, children often find themselves unattended, leading to further fracturing of families and communities.

Mesiar jokes that the socio-economic decay at the model village is so bad that, “even marriage proposals are rejected when people find out where we come from.”

No Negotiations

Protesters ask if “Good Governance” only exists in the south, comparing their situation to “dogs in the streets”. Image courtesy writer

According to Chandraleela, protesters at Keppapulavu were invited for a meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on February 9 ‒ the same day Government officials met with families of the disappeared from Vavuniya, and displaced families from Puthukkudiyiruppu who are also demanding their land back from the military.

However, Keppapulavu protesters chose to decline this invitation and to leave such negotiations to the Government Agent and other local politicians. As far as Chandraleela is concerned, “there is nothing to be discussed,” and “no deals to be made”.

“Our demands are simple,” she says. “It has been over five years since we left Menik Farm and we will not leave until we get our lands back.”

With pressure mounting for a clear and decisive response from Colombo, the President’s request to Army Commander De Silva to release occupied lands in Keppapulavu may not mean much to protesters, given a legacy of broken promises.

Earlier today (February 15), Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council C. V. K. Sivagnanam sent a letter addressed to President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and Opposition Leader Sampanthan, urging action on the issue.

The letter states: “They [the people of Keppapulavu] are fighting for their rights without any political background. The complete solutions have not been given up to now, while justice demands the release of their lands at Keppapulavu. If their reasonable demand is neglected it will result in serious consequences in the political background.”

Meanwhile, Chandraleela insists she will not abandon the protest, as the community looks to her for leadership. When asked what she would do if and when the community’s lands are finally released, she says:

“We will stand on our own two feet again. If the military cut down our trees we will plant them again. The fishermen will fish and the farmers will farm. We will be independent.”

*Editor’s note: A quote in the article which was previously mistranslated as “Many of the families here are originally Up-Country Tamils who fled anti-Tamil pogroms and JVP insurrections in the ‘80s and ‘90s to settle in the Kent and Dollar Farm. These families were then displaced once again in the early 2000s and provided with lands by the LTTE in the villages of Keppapulavu and Pilakudiyiruppu” has now been corrected. 

Featured image credit Twitter/@uthayashalin