When Chelliah Suriyakumar heads out to the sea, he is fully aware of the uncertainty of his earnings for the day. “Depending on the catch, it could be 1,500 [rupees], 400, or nothing at all,” says the fisherman in Velanai Island, off Jaffna’s coast.
From the time his family returned from India in 2004 — he spent about five years at a refugee camp in Mandapam, Rameswaram — life has not been easy. Despite the challenges in starting a new life virtually from scratch, Mr. Suriyakumar (50) says he is better off today. “The only thing that matters,” he says, “is being back home”.
After spending decades during Sri Lanka’s ethnic war shuttling from Velanai to the Vanni, and then to India and back to Sri Lanka now, the idea of “home”, for many returnees like Suriyakumar, is precious.
“You may get all the support you want while in another country, but at the end of the day, you are called a refugee,” he says, seated in his daughter’s home that adjoins his, even as the warm breeze from the nearby sea makes its way in. The home was built with assistance from the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR ), an organisation working with Sri Lankan refugees in India and returnees in Sri Lanka.
It is the idea of “home” that drew N. Vadivel (80), to Sri Lanka in 2004. “Even if you die, it must be in your homeland. There is no other place like home,” says the elderly fisherman. However, quickly drawing attention to the family’s immediate, stark reality, his wife Balalakshmi adds: “But it is a bad time for fishermen. There are no other jobs available. Some days, we just pluck some leaves and vegetables from the bushes around to make something to eat.”
Recalling the refugee camp days in Rameswaram, his son Sathiyanandavel, also a fisherman, says life was a relatively comfortable in Tamil Nadu. In addition to a regular dole, they were entitled to food supplies at the ration shops. Children went to local schools, some students enrolled in good colleges.
“People there were very helpful. The Tamils [in India] there are indeed like our brothers. But, we are Sri Lankan citizens and this is our home.”
Emphasising his national identity Sathiyanandavel asks: “We may be Tamils, but while in India they don’t call us just ‘Tamils’, they say ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, right?”
For those who have been away for decades, it is, in fact, the Sri Lankan identity that gives a sense of belonging, says Thavalingam, a mason in Kayts.
After he lost his vision partially, his family lives on the modest daily wage his wife brings back home from odd jobs she takes up in her village. “Bringing up four children in this situation is proving really hard, but I have not once regretted coming back my country,” he says.
Some refugees, who returned with their families, received assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while others managed to fly down or come by boats, with the small savings they had made in India, often taking up work in construction, painting or in masonry.
Deciding whether or not to come back is a tricky call for the returnees, says an activist — who preferred to remain anonymous. After working extensively in northern Sri Lanka for the last few years, he says many of the returnees do not quite know what is in store when they come here.
“Coming back to their homeland is an emotional position, but there are some practical difficulties,” he observes.
Due to the absence of a scientific rehabilitation programme for returnees, or even a basic support mechanism many returnees get disillusioned and soon feel helpless, he says, suggesting that both governments [India and Sri Lanka] jointly address the issue.
“From the time the returnees start their paper work in India and come here, until they try and find their land, build a home, move in, find schools for their children and jobs for themselves, it is only an obstacle chase,” he says.
Virtually orphaned by the political process, returnees have nowhere to turn to, for support in rehabilitation and resettlement.
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Resettlement dealt only with issues pertaining to Internally Displaced Persons and had no policy specific to returnees from India, enquiries with government officials revealed.
Seeing some promise in the recently Northern Provincial Council election, the activist says, “The new provincial council administration should try and make a difference to their lives.”