Chennai: More than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees continue to live in Tamil Nadu 30 years after the outbreak of civil war caused them to flee across the Palk Strait.
Today they live on in the knowledge that their sheltering camps can never be home, while returning means having to rebuild life from the scratch. And for an entire generation, these camps are the only homes they’ve ever known—yet they are called refugees.
18 May marked the eighth anniversary of the end of the civil war between armed separatists belonging to the minority Tamils and the army of the Sinhala-majority island.
A 54-year-old father of four sons, S. Moorthi who left Sri Lanka in his early twenties with his dreams of becoming a professor shattered by the civil war, now runs a small provision store at the refugee camp in Gummidipoondi, around 50km from Chennai. He is waiting for the day when he can return home in Trincomalee, in the northern province of Sri Lanka.
As he attends to his one-year-old grandson who is sleeping in a plastic crate that is hanging from the roof as a cradle, he says: “The process for obtaining passport and other documents is on. Having lived here in the camp for over 25 years and having run this small business, I’m aware it won’t be easy when I go back home. I’ll have to struggle hard for a better living."
Sitting inside his small crammed home- cum-shop, he adds, “In the 1980s in my village near Trincomalee there were 55 families. Now there are just three families and if I run this shop there, I can’t earn anything."
Another refugee, a 60-year old woman is at his shop asking for empty cartons to pack her daughter’s belongings, as she prepares to go back to Mannar, Sri Lanka. G. Lakshmi.
“My eldest daughter went last year and, unable to cope up, she came back in two months. My younger daughter is leaving this month to stay at her husband’s place," she adds.
A 35-year-old man who left Sri Lanka during the last phase of the civil war, says on the condition of anonymity: “The present generation were either born here or left Sri Lanka when they were infants. So, for them this is home. Yet, they are called refugees," he adds.
A 19-year-old college student P. Jency reflects this view: “I have never been to Sri Lanka. My sister and I were born and brought up here in the camp. My parents keep saying that they want to go home as the war is over. But I want to finish my college, get a job and move out of the camp."
Currently, there are 64,208 refugees living in 107 government-run camps and at least 40,000 refugees are estimated to be living outside the camps across Tamil Nadu, according to the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), an NGO which aids the return and rehabilitation of the Sri Lankan Tamils in their homeland.
According to the OfERR, 40% of refugees in camps -- run by government of India and special camps under Tamil Nadu state government —are currently willing to return to their homeland. However, potential returnees who have stayed in Tamil Nadu for a long period have concerns about the availability of basic services, status of their properties and access to employment opportunities in Sri Lanka.
The civil war remains seared in public memory.
Recently, Sri Lanka’s Northern Province chief minister C.V. Wigneswaran said that the Tamils across the globe should observe 18 May as a “day of mourning". The District Judge and Magistrate of Mullaitivu ordered a 14-day ban on ceremonies near St Paul’s Church in Mullivaikkal — the northern village in Mullaitivu district where Tamil Tiger rebels fought their last stand before being overrunby the Sri Lankan army in May 2009— on the grounds that these would affect “the country’s integrity, national security and the peace of the nation".
The UN estimates that 40,000 civilians died during the final phase of the war.
People of Mullivaikkal, who were unable to mark the anniversary during the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, commemorated their war dead for the first time in 2015 after Maithripala Sirisena took over as the president of the island nation.
Back in the camp in Tamil Nadu, a 42- year-old who went to his home town in Vanni, Sri Lanka and was unable to survive, because he had lost all his properties in the war and had financial difficulties in setting up his own business , returned to the camp in Gummidipoondi explains, “Once a refugee, we will forever be refugees."
“After being displaced, we have lost our identity and how much ever we search, we can’t get it back— neither here nor in Sri Lanka," he says, on the condition of anonymity, as he rushes to give his weekly attendance in the refugee camp’s taluk office.