Small steps to recovery

Residents in conflict-affected northern Sri Lanka, still reeling from the effects of more than 25 years of war, are taking small but significant steps on the country’s long road to recovery.

In Murugandi, a village straddling the A9 highway, the 321km artery linking the former conflict areas with the rest of the island, Anton Gunadayalan, 33, a local official, typifies the mood.

Oblivious to the bullet-pocked walls around him, he sits at his desk, with a new computer and printer, concentrating on the job at hand.

“We’re trying to set up system to help housing reconstruction,” he told IRIN. “My job is to issue permits for the transportation of timber, sand and other material.”

Though his office has yet to issue a single permit, the fact it is happening at all is a sign of progress.

“A year ago we were not sure whether we would stay alive for the next 10 minutes. Now we are talking of building houses. That’s a big improvement to me,” he said.

“For the first time in two decades we are talking of building houses that people will live in for years.”

Economic boost

Another example is the reopening of the A9, connecting the central city of Kandy with Jaffna, at the extreme tip of the island, to civilian traffic in January.

''A year ago we were not sure whether we would stay alive for the next 10 minutes. Now we are talking of building houses. That’s a big improvement to me.''

Thousands of visitors can now travel to the once isolated north, providing a much-needed boost to the local economy. For the first time in years, local produce and fish from the north will now be able to reach markets in the south.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the north over the past two months,” Jaffna’s Catholic Bishop, Reverend Thomas Saudranayagam, said.

The parliamentary elections on 8 April also bode well for the north’s continued demilitarization, he said.

“People aren’t used to having a free choice. The elections will be a sign that civil life is returning,” the bishop said.

Although incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to do well at the polls, many observers also see this as a real chance to strengthen the country’s unity through reconciliation.

However, that means the government taking on board the longstanding demands of the Tamil population, many of whom continue to feel marginalized from mainstream Sri Lankan society, as well as the island’s other ethnic and religious groups.

Landmine barrier

The ongoing issue of landmines is preventing the safe return of thousands of displaced people to their places of origin.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
A school in Kilinochchi reopens in a war-damaged building

According to the Engineering Corps of the Sri Lanka Army, charged with the task, more than 1,000 sqkm have been cleared so far, with about 690 sqkm to go.

Since demining efforts began last year, more than 15,689 anti-personnel mines, 37 tank mines and about 4,500 unexploded ordnances have been recovered.

“If we can complete demining, electricity supply to the north will be more stable and widespread,” said Major General Udaya Nanayakkara, head of the corps.

Power lines cannot be laid until that is complete, he said, warning that the process would likely slow somewhat now as deminers begin working in areas where the conflict was most intense.

Nevertheless, Monty Ranatunga, director of the country’s National Mine Action Centre, Ministry of National Building and Estate Infrastructure Development, maintains the de-mining of residential areas and agricultural areas will be completed by the end of 2011.

Government forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland, on 18 May 2009, ending a civil war that had flared on and off since the early 1980s and left hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced.

According to the UN, more than 280,000 were living in government camps. Of this number, over 104,000 have since returned to their places of origin, while another 82,000 are staying with host families.