by Marisa de Silva, Nilshan Fonseka and Ruki Fernando -Friday, April 14, 2017
On September 8, 2007 the entire village was unceremoniously evacuated by the Military with the promise of enabling their return within three days. Ten years later, these villagers are yet to be allowed to return to their homes
The recent spate of continued protests demanding the return of lands and truth and justice for the disappeared breaking out across the North and East, appeared to have breathed new life to the struggle of the Mullikulam people to return home to their village
My father, my father’s father and my father’s grand-father have lived here. Mullikulam has been our home for generations now. Our church was made during my great-grand-father’s time, way before I was even born. There were four streams running through our village. We even had one stream just for bathing. When we couldn’t fish in the sea, we would fish in our streams. We had plenty of everything – paddy, cows, chickens and buffaloes, so we always had enough to eat and drink. We would gather together in the evenings and host drama and dance programmes. Everyone had a good time… We lived peacefully alongside our Muslim neighbours. Whenever there were troubles here during the war, we would go stay with them until it was safe for us to return home. I strongly believe that something good will happen for us this time around. Every day I pray that we will all live together peacefully. At least when I leave this earth I pray that we should all be united…” reminisces 88-year-old village elder from Mullikulam, M. Francis Vaz, who hasn’t been home since 2007.
Mullikulam villagers re-start their struggle to return home
On September 8, 2007 the entire village was unceremoniously evacuated by the Military with the promise of enabling their return within three days. Ten years later, these villagers are yet to be allowed to return to their homes and engage in their traditional livelihoods. Since their eviction from Mullikulam in 2007, the Navy North-Western Command Headquarters has been established there, occupying the entirety of their village. A decade long relentless struggle comprising multiple protests, petitions, discussions and false promises, has brought the villagers back to the streets, inspired by the stories of other victims fighting for their rights, and supported by many others, irrespective of religious or ethnic backgrounds. Village Elder, Francis Vaz’s memories of living in peace with Muslims in adjoining Marichikattu, and supporting each other through difficult times has been re-affirmed and come alive, as the Mullikulam people had chosen to start their recent protest on the premises of a very supportive and sympathetic Muslim house, situated at the turn off to their ancestral village, from the main Mannar – Puttalam road.
The recent spate of continued protests demanding the return of lands and truth and justice for the disappeared breaking out across the North and East, appeared to have breathed new life to the struggle of the Mullikulam people to return home to their village that had been illegally occupied by the Military since 2007. Some of the women elders from the village had discussed the ongoing struggle for the return of their lands in Keppapulavu, at the Matha Kootam (Association of Mother Mary) meeting last month, and decided that they too must re-start their struggle to return home. They had then told the village men of their decision, and the men too had agreed to support them. Currently there are approximately 120 families temporarily resettled in Malankaadu, and 150 families in Kayakuli. About a 100 families (now with extended families as well,) had left for India due to war and displacement, but, are waiting to return if their village is returned to them.
“We (about 50 villagers from both Malankaadu and Kayakuli), re-started our protest for the return of our lands, on Thursday (23 March) morning around 8am. The Navy came outside and asked us ‘why are you protesting here? Why not in front of the District Secretariat (DS) office? We will provide you with buses to go and protest there. You’re protesting against us even though we’ve helped you so much,’” said villagers. “They (the Navy) wouldn’t need to provide us with help if they just give us back our lands,” added the villagers.
Displacement from Mullikulam and aftermath
“When we left in 2007, there were about 100 of our houses in good condition and about 50 other self-made mud and thatched houses. From what we can remember, there was also our Church, the Co-operative building, three school buildings, a pre-school, two hospital buildings, a library, post-office, Fisherman’s Co-operative Society building, a teachers quarters, a RDS building, six public, and four private wells, and nine tanks,” recall the villagers. Now, they have no access to the tanks, public spaces and limited access to some of their cultivation land. Only 27 of the 150 houses remain to this day, and are occupied by Navy personnel. Villagers claim that the rest have been destroyed. They access the church via a side road, and claim that the existing short-cut via the reservoir bund, has been blocked off by the Navy. Most elderly people find it difficult to reach the Church at times they wish to pray, and are now dependent on a Navy bus to take them to and from Sunday Mass. What used to be a 50-100 meter walk is now 3 and 10 kms each way from the church to Malankaadu and Kayakuli, respectively. The Navy also provides a daily school bus to take children to and from school which teaches only up to Grade 9. Thereafter, children have to go to other nearby schools on their own, or stay at hostels if the schools are too far away.
The Mullikulam people were primarily a farming and fisher community, so their proximity to the sea was essential. They had access to nine Paadu (One Paddu= 450metres) (Passing) to fish for prawns and other shallow water fish. Now they only have access to four with the most fertile Paadu being currently under Navy control. When the villagers were evicted from Mullikulam in 2007, they had left behind 64 each of the following; fibre glass boats, out-boat motors, nets and ropes and other fishing gear, 90 Theppams (Catamarans) and 3 drag-nets. Surveillance and intimidation
“If you don’t stop your protest, we’ll show you our power in the sea,” the Navy had threatened the villagers on the first day of the protest.
There was a high degree of surveillance and intimidation of protesters and outsiders visiting them by the Navy and Silavathurai Police (including Traffic Police,) during the first few days. But during the second week of the protests, Navy officers had been less aggressive and the Area Commander and other officers had indicated to the people protesting and Church leaders that they are ready to abide by any decision that Colombo based Defence establishment would take. But Colombo has been silent for nearly two weeks, despite efforts by Church leaders to reach out.
Legal status of land and response of the DS
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka had concluded that the Navy had occupied private land without due process and had recommended that if providing alterative lands, people’s willingness should be considered and they should not be forced to settle elsewhere.
The DS and his representative had visited the people on March 23, itself, and told them that they won’t achieve much by protesting, and to give them a letter with the people’s demands, that they would hand it over to higher authorities for action. A majority of the lands in the village are owned privately by individuals and the Catholic Diocese of Mannar. The rest of the lands are through permits and grants under the Land Development Ordinance (LDO), State lands and National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) lands.
The DS had also asked them why they are still fighting even after they had received alternate housing. The villagers categorically said that they had continuously fought for the return of their original lands, and had only reluctantly accepted alternate housing in the interim. “We have always maintained that we want to return home,” they said.
“We had everything… now we’re living in a jungle. How can we live like this? I have faith that we’ll get everything back, at least so our children and grand-children can see and enjoy the home we grew up in…,” is village elder, Francis Vaz’s only plea.