Home at last
The day Bavani (30) returned to her home village in Uppamaveli, in the Maritimepattu DSD in Eastern Mulaitivu, was one of joy but also sadness. “We had never expected to ever come back here again,” she said smiling. But when she did return she found that the two houses that they had almost completed building before they fled their village, were gone, completely destroyed and looted. The area surrounding their village was also contaminated with mines and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW).
Bavani returned with her father, mother, sister and little son in May 2010 after a displacement period of almost 1 ½ years. Bavani’s husband works in Dubai and provides a small but regular income for the family. With this income the family was able to save enough money to build two houses, one for Bavani and her son, and one for her parents and sister. The brick buildings were almost complete when fighting intensified and the family was forced to flee the area.
As the sounds of heavy fighting had drawn closer in November 2008, the family decided it was time to leave behind all their property and flee to safer ground. At first, they moved to Mulaitivu town where they stayed for a while, hoping the fighting would soon end. When they realized this would not be the case, they continued their journey to the Puthukkudiyiruppu DSD in Northern Mulaitivu until they reached the coast from where they took a boat to Jaffna. During their flight, Bavani’s father and son got separated from the rest of the family and only Bavani, her mother and sister reached Jaffna. “Once we reached the camp in Jaffna we started asking around to find out where my father and son could be, as we had no idea where they were. Only a few weeks later we found out that they were in another camp in Vavuniya,” says Bavani. For almost a year and a half the family remained separated from each other.
Finally, in May 2010, Bavani’s father got the opportunity to return to his beloved village, together with Bavani’s son. Bavani would soon follow with her mother and sister. Upon arrival a devastating sight awaited them. Their two houses, the homes they had built with so much effort, had been completely destroyed and looted. The wooden window frames were taken out, the roofs were gone. Not a single part of the walls was still standing.
Heavy fighting had taken place in and around Bavani’s village. Before families started returning to the area the UNDP Support to Mine Action Project, in line with Government’s resettlement plan, tasked the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) to survey the land to assess whether there were any mines or other ERWs contaminating the land. The main road and a part of the northern side of the village was released for resettlement following confirmation that the area was safe. This is where Bavani’s family built a small straw hut to live in after their return.
Across the street however, to the south of the village a heavily mined bund line ran through the family’s coconut plantation. “At the time we left the village there were no mines in this area, and so we had no idea of this problem when we returned,” explained Bavani. FSD had marked off the area, and started clearance in May 2010. So far the deminers, including a team of 20 women deminers, have found 265 mines with an additional 807 ERWs being reported through community liaison activity. These have subsequently been destroyed by FSD teams. The UNDP Support to Mine Action Project’s quality assurance teams visit the mine clearance site regularly to ensure that clearance operations are carried out in accordance with Sri Lanka’s National Mine Action Standards. The sporadic pattern of mine laying makes demining a very time consuming process, as every square meter needs to be cleared to ensure no mine is missed. FSD expects the clearance to last for another 4 months. “This is one of the most heavily contaminated areas in the North. The contamination here has a significant impact on the returning population, many of whom have no choice but to live near dangerous areas after they return from the IDP camps,” says Nigel Robinson, Program Manager, FSD, Sri Lanka.
Because of the mine contamination in their coconut plantation Bavani and her family have not been able to resume their livelihoods yet. This has left them feeling insecure and worried about the future. “We receive a food ration from the Government and we have received LKR 25,000 and one plastic sheet, but we have no source of income now. With the rains starting soon and the flooding that will follow, our straw hut will not be able to keep us dry,” says Bavani. Despite all their worries, the family is happy to see that the FSD demining teams are working daily in their village, cleaning their land of these deadly remnants of war. Their work will eventually help Bavani and others like her to restart their livelihood activities and gradually go back to their old lives.