Iranaiteevu displaced reclaim their lands | Sunday Observer

Iranaiteevu displaced reclaim their lands

29 April, 2018

In a daring move on Monday, April 23, 300 people boarded some 40 boats, and set sail to reclaim their traditional lands in two tiny islands off the coast of Kilinochchi.

An unthinkable prospect three years ago, the community hoisted white flags on their boats and rode towards the Sri Lanka Navy occupied islands. Singing hymns and praying, the predominantly Catholic community marched ashore. Led by members of the Catholic clergy and accompanied by journalists and activists, community representatives negotiated with Navy officials, insisting that they speak to a commanding officer. Now that they had stepped foot, back on their traditional lands, the people insisted they would not leave again.

Naval officials asked the people why they landed on the island, saying they had already allocated Rs 1 million for the renovation of the Iranaiteevu church. “We will rebuild it,” the officers said.

“This is not about the church being rebuilt. These people want to return here and pray in this church like they used to, they want to earn a living by fishing, which is their traditional livelihood,” Father Arulchelvam, who accompanied the community told the naval officials.

“Iranaiteevu is where these people were born, they have lived here for 200 years,” the Catholic priest went on to explain.

“Their demands are very simple. They want to live in their own homes. They are more than willing to allow the Navy to continue to carry out your duties here,” Fr. Arulchelvam told the officers. “Today, the people came here intending to stay back. This is the goal of our journey here today,” the priest said. Later that day, the returning residents spent time sweeping and cleaning their church and community centres to make them livable once more after an interlude of 26 years.

Displaced by war since 1992, the families have lived in Iramathanagar – the closest mainland point to their island home, situated in western Kilinochchi. Iranaiteevu’s displaced residents made their living by fishing, and their displacement to the mainland has deprived many of them of their livelihood because it means they must travel further by boat, using more diesel to power the boat-engines to engage in fisheries, say activists like Ruki Fernando who travelled to Kilinochchi last Monday, as the community marked one year of protests for the right to return to their lands.

Since 1992, the islands have been occupied by the Navy. After the war ended, the Navy permitted the displaced Iranaiteevu residents living on the mainland to fish off the island waters, but only during daytime. Fernando says, the Iranaiteevu women had also engaged in fisheries activities before they were displaced, collecting mussels and oysters in the shallow waters around the resource-rich coral islands. Fernando says, the island also housed the community school, church, cooperative society, weaving center, hospital and the village council.

[For Ruki Fernando’s extensive background story on the residents of Iranaiteevu and their battle to go back home, read Iranaiteevu: An island people’s battle to return home in the Sunday Observer Focus of April 22,2018]

Hoisting white flags on their boats the displaced families sail to Iranaiteevu to reclaim their land.