Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Stuck in Limbo

With the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka over and the country opening up to foreigners as never before, Tamil refugees in India are finally seeing their chance to leave the camps and return home. The only problem? Peace creates its own barriers.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In the early summer of 1983, S.C. Chandrahasan, a lawyer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, began to notice that there were "efforts being made to silence me"; one of his friends less euphemistically describes them as attacks on his life. Chandrahasan is a Tamil and an outspoken pitchman for human rights, a volatile combination in Sri Lanka at the time. That summer, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group of Tamil militants in the north, had ambushed Sri Lankan policemen on multiple occasions. In response, mobs made up of the Sinhalese majority killed between 400 and 3,000 Tamils across Sri Lanka; the riots came to be called Black July, though there would be many blacker months to follow. The very next month, Chandrahasan left for the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, becoming one the first of nearly 125,000 Tamils who would escape to India from the civil war that convulsed their country for 26 more years.

Chandrahasan hasn't been back to Sri Lanka since. Once in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, he founded the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), an NGO that represents Tamil refugees in India. OfERR is the only NGO allowed into the 115 tightly administered refugee camps in Tamil Nadu -- even today, eight months after the Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE, killed its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and ended the war. Chandrahasan had hoped that OfERR would be temporary; its head office, with its polystyrene roof and no walls, sits on the terrace of a Chennai tenement, and it has been maintained symbolically as an ad hoc affair that could be dismantled tomorrow. But now, even having spotted what Chandrahasan refers to as "the light at the end of the tunnel," OfERR and the refugees are reluctant to charge toward it. "We're clear about going back to Sri Lanka. We want to go back," he says. "We just cannot do anything rashly."

The peace is still less than a year old, but Sri Lanka has already begun to emerge on lists of holiday destinations; soon, everybody may be going to Sri Lanka, except the Sri Lankans who once fled their country. ("While a few military checkpoints remain, vacationers can lounge on poolside hammocks under palm trees or snorkel in its crystal-clear waters," the New York Times wrote this month.) The arrival of tourists may be proof of the cessation of combat. But the return of the Tamil refugees from India will be the best sign that the political strife underlying the war is nearing a solution and that Sri Lanka is turning back into a country where minorities can feel safe. The continuing failure of these refugees to return is, in a way, a failure of the Sri Lankan political process itself -- not to mention a humanitarian tragedy in which thousands of lives will be circumscribed by the borders of a camp well into the indefinite future.

In the early summer of 1983, S.C. Chandrahasan, a lawyer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, began to notice that there were "efforts being made to silence me"; one of his friends less euphemistically describes them as attacks on his life. Chandrahasan is a Tamil and an outspoken pitchman for human rights, a volatile combination in Sri Lanka at the time. That summer, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group of Tamil militants in the north, had ambushed Sri Lankan policemen on multiple occasions. In response, mobs made up of the Sinhalese majority killed between 400 and 3,000 Tamils across Sri Lanka; the riots came to be called Black July, though there would be many blacker months to follow. The very next month, Chandrahasan left for the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, becoming one the first of nearly 125,000 Tamils who would escape to India from the civil war that convulsed their country for 26 more years.

Chandrahasan hasn’t been back to Sri Lanka since. Once in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, he founded the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), an NGO that represents Tamil refugees in India. OfERR is the only NGO allowed into the 115 tightly administered refugee camps in Tamil Nadu — even today, eight months after the Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE, killed its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and ended the war. Chandrahasan had hoped that OfERR would be temporary; its head office, with its polystyrene roof and no walls, sits on the terrace of a Chennai tenement, and it has been maintained symbolically as an ad hoc affair that could be dismantled tomorrow. But now, even having spotted what Chandrahasan refers to as "the light at the end of the tunnel," OfERR and the refugees are reluctant to charge toward it. "We’re clear about going back to Sri Lanka. We want to go back," he says. "We just cannot do anything rashly."

The peace is still less than a year old, but Sri Lanka has already begun to emerge on lists of holiday destinations; soon, everybody may be going to Sri Lanka, except the Sri Lankans who once fled their country. ("While a few military checkpoints remain, vacationers can lounge on poolside hammocks under palm trees or snorkel in its crystal-clear waters," the New York Times wrote this month.) The arrival of tourists may be proof of the cessation of combat. But the return of the Tamil refugees from India will be the best sign that the political strife underlying the war is nearing a solution and that Sri Lanka is turning back into a country where minorities can feel safe. The continuing failure of these refugees to return is, in a way, a failure of the Sri Lankan political process itself — not to mention a humanitarian tragedy in which thousands of lives will be circumscribed by the borders of a camp well into the indefinite future.

According to figures compiled by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), roughly 800 refugees returned to Sri Lanka from India in 2009 — most of them after the war ended in May and most of them individuals rather than families, often fishermen hurrying to resume their interrupted livelihoods. The vast majority still left are, on OfERR’s insistence, still deciding what to do. In December, OfERR held three crucial, closed-door meetings of refugee representatives in towns across Tamil Nadu to discuss the challenges of return. "Earlier, we would have to tell people not to go back until it was safe," Chandrahasan says. "This time they were the ones telling us: ‘Don’t rush back. Don’t rush back.’"

The extreme caution is partly a result of the prevailing mood in the camps, at least as described to me by OfERR officials over several conversations. (The camps are inaccessible to journalists by order of the Tamil Nadu government, which administers them.) "For the last six months, people have been more worried than relieved," one OfERR official, M. Sakkariyas, told me. "They were in a sort of mental agony, wondering what happened to their relatives back home. Only now has that begun to pass."

But the caution is also sparked by the paucity of reliable information about postwar conditions in Sri Lanka. During the war, the Sri Lankan army was accused of being ruthless with Tamil civilians — of arresting and interning anybody with even dubious links to the LTTE and of summarily executing some of them. The army hasn’t entirely shrugged off that taint, and some members of the Tamil diaspora, according to Sakkariyas, are only too eager to feed fears that such cruelty continues. The "diaspora," as Sakkariyas uses the word, refers to former supporters and financiers of the LTTE, many of whom live in the West and control communication within the Tamil community. "There’s been some nonsense about a new transnational LTTE and so on, so naturally people are scared and don’t know what to believe," Chandrahasan says. "They’re still asking me: ‘Is Prabhakaran really dead?’ It takes time to overcome this kind of thing."

If the Tamil-dominated areas of Sri Lanka aren’t darkened by clouds of poison gas, as the "diaspora" would have people believe, they aren’t yet ideal for resettlement either. I talked to one NGO worker in Sri Lanka who had just returned from a trip to the north and the east of his country. He was there legally, but he still refused to be quoted by name. "The government doesn’t want to hear statements critical of it," he says. "There’s a chance they’ll trace the people I talked to there and take them into custody. I don’t want that."

In eastern Sri Lanka, where the war raged in its inaugural phases, the NGO worker saw that life had crawled back into a surprising degree of normality. "The markets were crowded and buzzing," he says. "I was taking photographs with so many people, and there were no security issues with that." But in the north, in towns like Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, where the war had reached its recent, brutal climax, the scars are still raw. "Most of the villages have been bulldozed," he says. "Houses were destroyed if they were even suspected [of housing LTTE members], and the government was also involved in destroying evidence, covering up where the shells and bombs fell." The region is so fertile that vegetation has rapidly reclaimed territory within the last year.

As a bellwether, the Tamil refugees in India are eagerly watching the fate of Sri Lanka’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) — nearly 300,000 people who were detained, during the war, in camps of poor quality and dubious legal status. After announcing a couple of fuzzy deadlines for IDP resettlement last year, the Sri Lankan government has now denied that any time-bound plan exists. "These people aren’t aware of what’s happening to them," the NGO worker says. "In one transit camp, the residents were told that they’d be leaving in three days, and now they’ve been there a month and a half." He has arrived at much the same conclusion as UNHCR. "We aren’t yet planning for any large-scale movement of refugees from India to Sri Lanka," Sulakshani Perera, an external relations assistant at UNHCR Sri Lanka, told me. "We think it’s best to wait and see, to gauge how the situation progresses."

The wisdom of that policy appears sound, especially to people who have been burned before. Among the residents of the Tamil Nadu camps are second-, third-, and even fourth-time refugees — Tamils who have returned to Sri Lanka, only to again flee a country still inhospitable to them. Chandrahasan recounts at least three earlier repatriations — in the late 1980s; in 1992, after the LTTE assassinated Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi and earned the Tamil refugees their host country’s disfavor; and in 2002. Every one of them ended badly; the fortunate managed only to struggle back to India, while the unfortunate were trapped between the fighting units of the army and the LTTE, waiting out a seemingly never-ending war. "In 2003, I was in a camp here in Tamil Nadu, and I asked for water from an old man," remembers Gladstone Xavier, a young OfERR volunteer. "He began to root through his baggage for a glass. He told me: ‘The war is going to be over soon, so I’ve already packed everything up to go home.’"

Chandrahasan cannot imagine organized repatriations beginning before the end of 2010, at the very earliest. "The presidential elections are scheduled for the end of January, and after that, we’d want to see some serious political changes," he says. "We’d want a constitutional change into a federal system of government because we’ve seen that the unitary process cannot protect a minority against a majority. We’d want citizenship to be given to the stateless people among us. We’d want some assistance promised to the refugees." OfERR will lobby for all of this, and it has some justifiable faith in its influence: In February 2009, partly due to OfERR’s vocal efforts, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed an act that approved citizenship for stateless refugees in India. But a constitutional evolution into federalism, something the Sinhalese majority opposes, is far less likely. Even presidential candidates courting Tamil votes refrain from promising too much and talk carefully of "devolution of powers."

"We’re good dreamers," Chandrahasan told me once, last April, when I asked him how difficult it was to wait out the war. If events in Sri Lanka don’t quite go as well as they wish, the refugees in India may find themselves dreaming out the peace — a less bloody proposition, but one with a frustratingly indeterminate end.

Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for the National. His new book, This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War, will be published by Penguin Books India this summer. 

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