Searching for Peace: Sri Lanka’s Displaced Seek to Return Home
By David Snyder
Like all who fled to the Sinhala Maha Vidhalayam displaced camp in Batticaloa, Sri Langka, Anthony Lenard receives support from Caritas Sri Lanka and other humanitarian agencies - including plastic sheeting, clothing, pot and pans, food and water.
Anthony Lenard had few options when Sri Lanka’s long simmering war caught up with him again. With his village in flames, and his mother killed in the shelling, he rounded up his family and headed in the only direction he knew was safe.
“On one side was the sea, on the other was fighting,” Lenard said. “So we had no option but to come here.”
Here is a sweltering schoolyard in the eastern city of Batticaloa, now a camp for some of the estimated 185,000 people displaced by the most recent wave of fighting in Sri Lanka’s embattled east. At its peak early in 2007, as many as 308,000 people had been displaced by fighting in a war that has killed as many as 70,000 Sri Lankans since 1983.
I met Lenard through my work with Caritas Sri Lanka, which has been assisting those affected by the fighting with a range of programs. For Lenard and the 360 others at the Sinhala Maha Vidhalayam camp in Batticaloa, that assistance took the form of meals, clothing, latrines and non-food items such as kitchen utensils – assistance that began as soon as Lenard and his family reached Batticaloa in early August 2007. A Catholic, Lenard headed for the church upon arriving in town, headquarters of the Eastern Human and Economic Development office of Caritas Sri Lanka.
“I went to the church, and the church authorities arranged to transfer me to this place,” Lenard said.
Arriving with others at the empty school building that was to become home, Lenard says the families present agreed among themselves where they would situate in the camp, as humanitarian agencies, including Caritas Sri Lanka, worked to provide the essentials they would need. He, along with his wife, his three grown sons, and his 14-year-old twins – one boy and one girl – crowded into two tiny rooms of the empty school building, the walls a simple partition of plastic.
“When we first came here were only a few families so we arranged ourselves,” Lenard said. “Then more families started coming.”
Like many in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where conflict has become all too familiar in recent decades, this is not Lenard’s first experience with displacement. Twice before, in 1985 and again in 1990, he has had to flee with his family. Worse still, this coastal area was heavily damaged by the tsunami of 2004, which killed tens of thousands of Sri Lankans and destroyed thousands of homes. While Caritas Sri Lanka was quick to respond to that crisis, and has since 2004 built or repaired more than 7,500 homes for those affected by the tsunami, the fighting that flared up in 2007 presented a new and challenging crisis for those in the Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts.
While the vast majority of those displaced by the fighting in the Trincomalee District have returned home, Lenard has grave fears about going back to his village near the town of Muthur, scene of some of the heaviest fighting. In many areas of Sri Lanka, ethnic and religious conflict, brought on by the larger conflict between government forces and an ethnic separatist movement, has been blamed for a range of deaths and abductions.
“I fear for the safety of my children. There are reports of ethnic unrest so I don’t want to take chances,” Lenard said. “I want to go back, but before I go I want to make sure my three oldest sons have immigrated out of the country. I am trying to arrange that.”
As Caritas transitions from emergency relief to shelter and livelihood assistance for those returning home to rebuild, Lenard and as many as 20,000 others remain in camps in the Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts, unable or unwilling to return to their former homes.
A trained electrician, Lenard supports himself with small electrical jobs, getting contracts he says, once or twice a month. His eldest son has a job with a local telecommunications provider, and the family has added a third room to their small section of the school building as other families have moved out. With assistance from Caritas, his twins have been placed in a local school.
“Initially there were problems because the school was new, the environment was new, and it was difficult for them to make friends,” Lenard said. “But now they are used to it.”
But life remains hard. Camp life is both uncomfortable and uncertain. Except for the luxury of a TV, salvaged from his home on a trip back to Muthur, the family has little except what was provided for them by aid agencies. While the burden of responsibility for his family adds even more stress to his life among the displaced, Lenard is firmly committed to the safety of his children, and equally sure about what it will take before he will move back to his former home.
“It won’t be a good time for me to go back until the fighting stops,” Lenard said. “And there is harmony.”
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