Testimony under threat: What is it like to be the first witness after a war?

An endless stream of internally displaced persons that started as a trickle developed into a great force of humanity, fleeing the conflict zone in early 2009. One path ran through Kilinochchi across where Rubawathy Ketheeswaran was working.

The war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE terrorists and the number of refugees ballooned to crisis proportions with 300,000 in the largest IDP camp known as Menik Farm. 

The challenging task of resettling IDPs fell on the shoulders of Ketheeswaran when she was appointed as the District Secretary of Kilinochchi in November 2009. It called for an extraordinary effort of coordinating an array of stakeholders including the Security Forces, Government Departments, NGOs, INGOs and UN organizations. 

At a time when there are conflicting information and unfounded reports of what happened after the war, we caught up with Ms. Keetheswaran to hear her story.

Rubawathy was raised in a poor family in Kilinochchi, she reminisces. She went to a rural school and her ambition was to come out of the poverty stricken situation her family was in. She went on to excel in her studies, and sit for the SLAS exam, emerging as Kilinochci’s first SLAS officer on record. “When I took over office, there were no people,” she said adding that there was only a military in a ghost town. “We not only resettled people back, we had to rebuild this city and each of their lives from scratch.”

Q. How many were resettled?

A. 39 000 families, 130 000 individuals were brought back.

Q. There are criticisms that the government did not assist them sufficiently and there is increased militarization?

A. In the beginning, there were no people in the district, there was the army that provided security. That is an undeniable fact. But they helped to resettle the people, some of these places were laden with mines and we depended on them to tell us where it was safe. When we began to resettle people, the military did not interfere in our activities. While some like to label their support as interference, we look at it as providing the essential assistance. Gradually we saw them move away, with time their appearance in the city waned.

Q. There are allegations that Hindu temples were demolished and Buddhist temples were erected. Is there any truth to it?

A. No Hindu temple was demolished here. During the war, many buildings were damaged due to shelling. But the government provided funds to rehabilitate all religious places.

Q. There is still a lot of criticism over land grabbing alleging that security forces are engaged in acts?

A. I have to reiterate that long before people were resettled it was the army that occupied lands including private lands. However when people came back to their homes and wanted their lands back, it was given to them. I lent my support to the public to secure the lands back to the original owners. That said, the security forces needed land to maintain their presence here which we provided. This area where we are now was occupied by the army, but when we asked them the space to build a new secretariat, they gave it up willingly and we gave them a small space in return.

Q. Why are there so many misleading messages?

A. It is all politics. Politicians constantly need something to tell people and keep people emotionally attached to them to secure their votes.

Q. What measures have you taken to create awareness?

A. We cannot engage in propaganda but we can ensure that people’s needs are addressed.

Q. Can you talk us through some of the initiatives you have taken to ensure that normalcy is restored?

A. There have been many issues, as I mentioned we had to rebuild this city and lives from nothing. As an example, many marriages that had taken place were due to forcible recruitment by the LTTE. To get away from the clutches of the LTTE youngsters married early. Some were married before 18 although it was illegal. They lived together and had children. But the children did not have birth certificates. There are so many stories like that.

Another striking example was when the mother, father and child were separated during the war. The father assumed the child was with the mother and the mother assumed vice versa. When they finally reunited, neither of them knew where the child was. They searched and eventually when all possibilities were exhausted, they were given a death certificate. At the secretariat we set up a reunion centre. A child who had been under the care of another individual was brought here and when these parents met the child, it turned out to be theirs. These are just some of the examples of their stories.

Q. What are the challenges you are face now?

A. The macro finance companies while providing loans have provided appliances and other homeware which appealed to the women who head these households. When these women were unable to pay off a loan, they were hastily provided with another loan at higher interest rates. As most of them are women, they are harassed, appliances are taken away and they are driven to commit suicide, which is still a huge issue for us.

When it comes to land matters most of these people do not have documentation. Some had sold their lands, obtained money and now due to the unavailability of the documents, wish to reclaim their lands.

In other instances their land had been rented out and families that lived there for over 20 years had multiplied and the lands were further sub divided and sold.

Recently we noticed an increase in suicide attempts of school going children which is a cause for concern. Drug abuse is high among adolescents. Even youth hailing from well to do families are addicted.

Q. There is a huge difference in sentiments expressed by you compared to those expressed by Tamils overseas. Why do you think so?

A. Those who left the country over 20, 30 or 40 years ago still hold on to ideals of what this place should be like. However that situation has changed and we need to coexist with many communities. We cannot live alone. Those ideals are outdated. When they lead comfortable lives they can say and do as they please, but we have to work hard to create a better future for our children. They can say anything but we have to work at it.

Q. Do you think the government made mistakes during this time?

A. I believe some of the policies have to be changed. Particularly in the education sector. Language is what links us with others and our children are also learning new languages. Why can’t we sit for language exams? Suspicions and misunderstandings arise when we cannot understand another person but when you can use language to link communities it changes.

Without any disparity we all should be treated equal. I don’t see unequal treatment but I get these complaints.

The lessons learnt in overcoming challenges in Batticoloa would have certainly strengthened her efforts in Killinochchi. Her leadership built up a team effort that overcame immense challenges and resettlement of the Killinochchi IDPs was achieved in eighteen months. The newly resettled, struggling to get on with building livelihoods were confronted with monsoonal floods and erratic droughts that impacted Killinochchi. Throughout it all she was a strong pillar anyone relied on.

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