Page last updated at 07:10 GMT, Tuesday, 4 May 2010 08:10 UK

Long struggle for displaced Sri Lankan Tamils

In northern Sri Lanka, 80,000 war-displaced people still live in army-run camps, waiting while their devastated land is cleared of mines and jungle. Tens of thousands are now beginning to resettle near the homes they fled from, but it is not easy, says the BBC's Charles Haviland.

Rebuilding the Sri Lankan railway
Work to rebuild the infrastructure in the north is going on

It is early morning but sweat pours from the brows of labourers on a railway track north of Vavuniya.

With a roar of exertion, they heave a piece of rail into place with a loud clanging of hammers and crowbars.

These men are literally rebuilding the Sri Lankan railway. It is part of what the government calls the "northern spring" - the reconstruction of northern Sri Lanka's infrastructure after the war which ended a year ago.

Just through the trees, others are rebuilding their own lives.

About 15 years after fleeing the villages round here, they have come home from the refugee camps but found their old homes vanished, destroyed by war.


In the village of Paranattahal, Subramaniam brings in his cattle at dusk. His face is etched with grief and trauma.

His wife was killed in shelling in the war's last days as they cowered in a bunker in the final conflict zone in the north-east.

Both his son-in-law and son are now detained by the government, suspected of links with the defeated Tamil Tigers.

Aid for sale
Some refugees sell their camp rations in return for cash

He can visit his son, who is in a government "rehabilitation" programme, but he doesn't know when he will be out.

He and his daughter have been discharged from the government camps with the bare minimum to start afresh.

Subramaniam is very happy to be on his old land even though his house was demolished by the army as the frontline drew closer.

From the camps they were dropped at the town council, registered, and then took a bus to the village.

Later they were given 16 tin sheets for construction - but, he says, "that wasn't enough to do anything, so I went to the forest, cut this timber and made this little house."

There are two rooms, a clay stove and utensils drying outside - and the cattle.

It is very basic but he and his daughter are regaining an independence they have not had for years.

On a small plot they are growing vegetables. Smoke rises from the chimneys.

In Nochchimoddai nearby, some of the new dwellings are simply a tin room on four sticks without any covering for the earth.

One school is built from shiny new corrugated iron and a roof thatched with coconut leaves.

It is not clear when there will be the resources to build stronger structures.

Fund shortage

Some returnees are restoring and rebuilding a destroyed well. They can use it themselves and for this work they also get a bit of cash from a local non-governmental organisation.

They need it. Because there is currently a shortage of international donor funds to the war-displaced Tamils, the $220 grant offered to returnees is, for now, suspended.

Subramaniam is happy to be back on his old land

Like Subramaniam, many villagers say they are glad to be back on home soil. But they do have problems.

"Because the land is being cleared, there's not much jungle cover," says Nagappan.

"Soldiers are deployed everywhere, too. So the women cannot go to the toilet. Toilets are urgently needed now. We need water, too. We'll be thankful if these needs can be fulfilled immediately."

Others have tried to grow crops but many plants have died as the rain has failed.

Those still living in the huge camps west of Vavuniya cannot farm. They are getting by in other ways.

It is still extremely difficult for the BBC to visit the camps but we meet IDPs who have come into the town on temporary exit permits.

Aid for sale

Market stalls have sprung up under bright umbrellas. But in among the usual fruit and vegetables and cheap clothing there is a curious sight - big sacks of flour, lentils and rice with the stamp of aid agencies on them.

"Not to be sold or exchanged" say sacks marked "USAID - From the American People". It is ignored.

Paranattahal village
Thousands are beginning to resettle near their old homes

The refugees are here to sell their camp rations so they can get a greater variety of fresh food with the cash.

The funding crunch is making life in the camps tougher. United Nations agencies now depend on a special emergency fund to finance the camps and those resettling.

One woman, Vijayakumari, is selling everything from sanitary towels to razors to tins of chickpeas - all provided as aid, some that she has bought from other displaced people.

For her and others in the camps, the main wish is to leave.

"Life inside the camps is very difficult," she says. "These days we only get the absolute basics."

In the evening in Paranattahal, Sinhalese soldiers and former Tamil refugees play a good-humoured game of cricket. Here they seem to get on well.

There are army camps scattered around the north.

Critics of the government accuse them of excessively militarising post-war northern Sri Lanka.

But the military spokesman, Prasad Samarasinghe, insists that they have to prevent any possible resurgence of militancy and says they will in time give way to the police.

"Development work is going to come. Investments are going to come. The people should need security for those developments. Investors will not come if you don't have security," he says.

As the development and investment starts coming in, it is clear that more everyday and basic needs must urgently be attended to as well.

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