A young mother faces new challenges after returning to eastern Sri Lanka

Telling the Human Story, 6 January 2010

© UNHCR/S.Perera
Former internally displaced civilians queue for non-food relief items in eastern Sri Lanka's Batticaloa district.

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, January 6 (UNHCR) Kavitha Ramani's* smile can light up a room but it cannot hide her exhaustion and physical suffering after years of uncertainty, flight and hardship in north-eastern Sri Lanka. The 29-year-old has the hands and gait of an old woman while her posture is stooped.

Today, she is finally back home with her parents and two children in eastern Sri Lanka's Batticaloa district after their recent release from a camp for people repeatedly displaced in the last months of Sri Lanka's long civil war, which ended with government victory over the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) last May. More than 155,000 people have left the government-run camps in the north and east as part of the return process, while almost 110,000 remain.

Some happiness has come back into Ramani's life, but she and her family still face major challenges in rebuilding their lives. Moreover, Ramani's husband remains in detention as a suspected LTTE member while her daughter has serious health problems and needs specialist treatment.

For now, she relies on help from the government and organizations such as the UN refugee agency, which has been providing shelter support, including repair of damaged homes, and distributing basic aid items such as mosquito nets, jerry cans, kitchen sets, blankets, tarpaulins, hygiene items and hurricane lamps. The World Food Programme provides food stocks for six months.

Ramani has known hardship for much of her life. Originally from the Paddipalai area of Batticaloa, she dropped out of school at the age of 13 due to her family's financial problems and got married a few years later. During this time, much of Batticaloa was under the control of the LTTE, which began its separatist struggle in 1983. The area was wracked by fierce fighting.

A ceasefire was forged in 2002, but it started unravelling in 2006. That same year, Ramani's husband was abducted by the LTTE and taken to their administrative hub of Kilinochchi in the far north.

"The LTTE said that, if needed, I could travel up to the north with my children to see him," she recalled, while adding: "Once we got there, the LTTE forbade us from leaving. So I had to rent a house in the Mullaitivu area [on the coast] and live there with my children."

This was the beginning of a three-year-long ordeal. "Our only income came from a small vegetable stall that I maintained and the occasional money that my parents were able to send me," Ramani explained.

Her daughter's health was another major concern. The nine-year-old girl had been diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was an infant and her future looked grim. "I was trying to find a way to take my daughter to Colombo for treatment. But before I could make it out, the war reached Mullaitivu," said Ramani.

After the capture of Kilinochchi in January 2009, government forces besieged Mullaitivu, last stronghold of the LTTE. Ramani and her family, along with tens of thousands of other civilians, were trapped in the combat zone, fleeing from area to area in search of safety. The family managed to escape from the maelstrom, but Ramani's husband broke his leg and had to be assisted all the time.

Once the conflict was over, Ramani and her children were sent to one of the closed camps in the northern district of Vavuniya, but her husband was detained for questioning. "That was the last time I saw him. I've received several letters from him and my mother-in-law was also able to visit him once," she said.

Ramani said her time in the camp was difficult at first, with up to four families staying in tents designed for just five or six people. "This also resulted in the spread of disease, such as diarrhoea, in the camp," Ramani noted.

But she added that conditions improved once humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, were given access to the camps to provide assistance. While she was in Vavuniya, Ramani's family made regular visits to give her food and money, but they had to pass this through the fence surrounding the camp. "All I wanted to do was go home," said Ramani, who also worried about her daughter's condition.

In September, her prayers were answered. Ramani and several hundred other displaced people from the east were taken to a transit camp in Batticaloa and then allowed to go back home.

Ramani prays that after 26 years of conflict, Sri Lankans can move forward and rebuild their country in harmony and peace.

Her personal struggle is not over. She worries about her husband and her daughter and about making money to make ends meet without a regular income. "I really wonder what the future holds for me and my family," the elegant young woman said, her brave and winning smile intact.

* Name changed for protection reasons.

By Sulakshani Perera in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka