When war returned to the Vanni, the vast swath of land in Sri Lanka’s north, it came quickly and left just as fast. For over three decades as Tamil militants fought successive Sri Lankan governments seeking an independent Tamil homeland in the north, the Vanni was the main, bloody battleground. Then, from April 2008 to May ’09, it all changed suddenly as the Sri Lankan government launched multipronged attacks on the areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, dislodging them for good.
The decisive victory came at a high price, though, especially for the tens of thousands of civilians prevented by the Tigers from leaving the region. International rights groups and a U.N. panel have said that as many as 40,000 civilians died in the last phase of the conflict alone. The current government rejects that figure, putting the number of deaths at 11,172. Three years after the guns fell silent, this and other matters remain unsolved. And, despite real improvements, tens of thousands of survivors struggle with the demands of peace.
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Things are getting better, but slowly. During the conflict, the main road through the region was known as Sri Lanka’s highway of death. A recent visitor says it is now being expanded and its potholes, patched. But there is still a need for decent roads, medical facilities, banks and schools, especially outside major population centers. In October 2011, a study by the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) found that half of the people in the Vanni were food insecure and lived below the national poverty line.
Indeed, permanent jobs are still hard to come by. A report jointly compiled by UNICEF, WFP and the Ministry of Health in March said that one-third of the overall population in the Northern province and almost half of the over 400,000 resettled population there made an income by engaging in casual labor or day jobs. “Established, capital-rich companies from Colombo have not ventured into the region,” says Anushka Wijesinha, a research economist at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. “The youth there lack the skills and training.”
Housing too is hard to come by. According to data released by the U.N., of the 100,000 housing units destroyed during the final phase of the war, only around 16,000 have been rebuilt. “Housing is the priority need of the Vanni population. It is being met only at a snail’s pace,” says Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development in northern Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
Too add to the woes, the U.N. has reported major funding shortfalls. The 2011 joint Sri Lanka–U.N. funding appeal for $280 million fell short by $190 million. U.N. officials said that part of the gap would be carried into the 2012 appeal. However, the latest appeal is for a mere $140 million. (The U.N. office in Colombo did not answer queries on the lower appeal.) Officials at the National Mine Action Unit said that at current funding rates it would take another decade to rid the entire region of mines.
Longtime Vanni residents like Kulam Thambirajah, a 61-year-old grandfather, are used to life under the Tigers and now struggle to adapt to peacetime ways. He says the conflict’s end has eroded the sense of identity among minority Tamils. “The youth are more interested in wearing jeans, sunglasses and ear studs these days,” he says. He also complains that the presence of military personnel in the region is unnerving. “If we are to live normally, the guns have to disappear. They are still there, maybe not as many as before, but they are still there.”
For Vanni’s younger generation, who knew nothing but war until three years ago, adjusting to peace can be surreal. “It was a nightmare, I don’t know how I survived,” says Murugan, a 30-year-old newlywed who goes by one name. “I never imagined life would be like this — I am married now, I am thinking of having children.” Though he and others struggle to find work, he is finally looking to the future. “I can sit under a tree and daydream of peace, of my wife, my [future] kids. If I did that three years back, chances are I would have been blown to bits.”