Feature Article

‘Border pioneers’ face uphill task

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 21 May 2003, 12:44 GMT]
“We settled here in 1954 to safeguard our homeland. Today there is nobody to save us”, says Mr. Kanapathipillai Poopalapillai, 79, former President of the Rural Development Society of Sinnawaththai, a destroyed border Tamil village in the east coast’s interior. The Special Task Force and Sri Lanka Police built their camps in the Sinhala sector of this border zone with bricks and wood from the Tamil homes they dismantled or demolished in Sinnawaththai.

“I came with my people from Thuraineelavanai to open up the jungle to make rice fields and clear lands for settlement in 1954. We were inspired by Thanthai Chelva (Mr. S. J. V Chelvanayagam, the founder leader of the Federal Party - FP), Vanniyasingham and Rasamanickam (senior leaders of the FP). They came to our village and urged us to settle in the border regions to stop the tide of state backed Sinhala colonization in our soil. We believed that it was our patriotic duty to settle in these lands, braving the dense jungles, wild animals and the constant threats from armed Sinhala colonists to protect the Tamil homeland”, Mr. Poopalapillai told Tamilnet.

Border Village Picture
Mr. Poopalapillai

In 1956, large hordes of armed Singhalese backed by Sri Lankan state authorities attacked Tamil settler villages along the old Batticaloa district border, making deep inroads at several points. (The Amparai district was carved out of the southern part of the old Batticaloa district)

“The Sri Lankan government’s aim at the time was to chase away all the Tamils who had settled in the newly opened lands and to make way for extensive Sinhala colonisation in strategic parts of Batticaloa”, said Mr. Joseph Pararajasingham, Tamil National Alliance MP for the eastern district.

“We beat back the 56 Sinhala ‘invasion’. We did not allow them to take an inch of our lands”, Mr. Poopalapillai says.

Border Village Picture
Mr. Vadivel showing his jungle overgrown house

Armed only with shotguns and ‘native’ booby traps Tamil settlers in these parts, mostly from the village of Thuraineelavanai, fought off the Sri Lankan state backed Sinhala mobs.

To quell wide spread counter attacks, Colombo sent in the Sri Lanka army to Thuraineelavanai itself, a village on small peninsula in the lagoon, 35 kilometres south of Batticaloa.

But the SLA convoy was ambushed on the narrow approach road to the village by the self-armed farmers. An SLA jeep was damaged and several soldiers were injured in what is described as the first armed Tamil attack against the Sri Lanka army.

After 1956, the Tamil settlers had to fight two more large-scale Sri Lankan state backed attempts by well armed Singhalese in 1978 and 81 to capture lands in the border areas.

However, since 1983 the Sri Lankan armed forces were openly involved on the side of the Singhalese in destroying Tamil villages along the borders and driving out the settlers permanently from there.

Border Village Picture
a makeshift shelter by a resettling family in Maalaiyar Kattu

Today Sinnawaththai stands desolate and stark contrast to the prosperous Sinhala settlement beyond a brief stretch of paddy that marks the border.

Dry zone jungle has overgrown the once prosperous agricultural settlement, 40 kilometres southwest of Batticaloa.

Since 1990, the Sri Lanka army, (STF), Sri Lanka Police and Sinhala homeguards virtually razed to the ground Maalayar Kattu and Poochchikkoodu, Tamil farmers’ settlements around Sinnawaththai. The Sinnawaththai Pillaiyar temple wasn’t spared either. It was stripped of all its idols, valuables and woodwork. The bare structure remains amid the jungle now.

Many in the adjacent Sinhala villages in which the STF and Sri Lanka Police have their camps are employed as homeguards. They too, availing themselves of the unbridled authority they enjoyed under the STF and Police, ransacked of whatever was left of Sinnawaththai.

The rice fields of the Tamil villages in this area became no go zones. Villagers who dared to venture out in search of abandoned cattle or to salvage remnants of their household items went missing or were murdered by the STF and Police.

Border Village Picture
The school for the children of refugees from Maalaiyar Kattu

“In 1990, armed Sinhala goons and Sinhala home guards came into our village, shooting at people who were working in the fields and tending cattle. They hacked to death my father, Ponnaiah Vadivel, and several others who were with him. I was 17 at the time. I escaped the massacre with my mother”, Mr. Vadivel Punniyamoorthy, a refugee who returned to Sinnawaththai three weeks ago to clear his family’s land, told Tamilnet.

“We still do not have any means to repair our homes or stay here safely for many days”, said Mrs. Ponnuchchamy Saraswathy, 52, another returnee who just finished clearing her plot of land of dense jungle undergrowth – all by herself.

“I neither have the money nor assistance to do this,” she laments.

People who fled the terror unleashed by Sri Lankan armed forces and Sinhala homeguards in 1990 settled in safer areas far from the Sinhala border. Colombo provided neither refugee shelters nor the means to set up their own huts on land provided by friends and relatives.

An NGO built some houses for the refugees, mainly those from Maalaiyar Kattu, in place called Ollimadu. The school for the refugee children is a bare open structure, completely exposed to the elements. “This place has absolutely no facilities, except this black board”, said Arokkyam Thadchanamoorthy, the school’s principal.

Refugees have begun to trickle back to clear the jungle in the homesteads and to clean water wells in Sinnawaththai and Maalaiyar Kattu.

They have built some fragile huts with sticks and cadjan. Others have covered their huts with hemp sacks.

Border Village Picture
Ms. Saraswathy in front of her destroyed home

The community farm established by the Ghandiyam the Movement to settle Tamils who were driven out from Tissamarama, in southern Sri Lanka, during the 1977 anti Tamil pogrom stands derelict in Malayar Kattu.

“Many of the Ghandiyam Farm settlers have moved out elsewhere permanently due to murders, constant threats and poverty”, said a recent returnee.

But resettlement is no easy task for the returnees mainly because access to the area is difficult and precarious.

Two rivers, Navakkiri Aaru and Moonkilaaru (Bamboo River), encircle the settlements.

When these rivers are in spate during the monsoon, Sinnawaththai, Poochchikkoodu and Maalayar Kattu marooned in the midst of swirling jungle floods.

A small dam cum bridge has been built across Moonkilaaru close to Maalayar Kattu recently under the World Bank funded North East Irrigation Agriculture Project (NEIAP). Returnees say the fierce waters of the river in spate could overwhelm the damn during high monsoon.

“But we are determined to reclaim our village and live here,” said Velupillai Kantharasa, a woodcutter who cycles about 20 kilometres with a heavy load daily under the searing sun to make a living until he saves up adequate money to farm his land again.


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