by David Brown – Asia Manager for Australian Red Cross
‘This was a really serious battle – it’s clear there was some real resistance here,’ says my colleague from Sri Lanka, indicating the enormous bomb crater which lies five metres behind the now destroyed house of Rajani Udayakumar.
Another equally large gouged cavity can be found on Rajani’s sister’s land, next door. Across the road, at her uncle’s place, the dwelling is in ruins, the pock-marked walls and shell fragments the legacy of the end of 30 years of civil war.
Up to a third of Sri Lanka was the site of battles between the government and the LTTE. After the collapse in late 2005 of the 2002 peace agreements, the war finally ended in May 2009. The final battles are thought to have left thousands dead, and many more internally displaced people.
Even as we drive back south from the tip of this densely populated island – there are still relief camps for thousands of displaced people, more than two years after the end of the war.
This area near the eastern coast had previously seen a deadly tsunami, and then later was the centre of many of the worst battles.
However, for any visitor to the region, it is clear that there are now only rough shelters of iron sheeting, tarpaulins and often a small cement base. That is, with the exception of the houses returnees are building under a cash grant scheme delivered by Red Cross.
The scheme – which is termed ‘owner-driven housing’ – is fundamentally a partnership between the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and the householder. Sri Lanka Red Cross provides staged payments to the householder, and the householder takes responsibility for the purchase of contract labour, materials and completion of the construction phases.
‘This is a beautiful thing,’ says Manjula Ravichandran, who took part in the program. ‘I have a great new house – and my happiness would be complete if my daughter could be found.’
Manjula’s daughter, Piriyadarshini, was forcibly taken by rebels as part of a conscription campaign three years ago. She was 16 at the time and she has not been found.
Another woman, Shantha Jesurathinam proudly shows me her new sewing machine which was purchased with a grant, as part of the program’s attention to new income opportunities. One man has purchased a set of plastic chairs for rental, another woman has focused on her cassava plantation.
‘We understand that returnees need to rebuild their lives,’ says program manager, Dr Mahesh Gunasekara, who has spent many years in countries as far apart as Sudan and China. His motivation to support the post-conflict recovery has brought him back to his native Sri Lanka.
As he shows us the visual and financial records of every single house under construction, and photos of the proud new house owners he also explains that the program supports the installation of a household sanitation system.
Finding a new home
Rajani is standing with Deluxna, her 11-year-old daughter. Her brother-in-law died in the fighting, her uncle is missing and her husband has fled overseas. He will be returning soon. She too has fled the fighting four times in the last five years, and spent over a year in the resettlement camps.
She is vibrant, full of life and positive about the future.
‘I want a future which never ever has this war – no one should have to go through this’, she says.
In the next breath she shows how proud she is of her daughter’s performance in the national exam where she ranked in the highest group in spite of interrupted schooling and living amidst the trauma of war.
After visiting many of the new house blocks – some in the early stages of foundation-setting, and others completed or close to completion – the stories are the same. No one wants to go back in time, and even though it is a struggle for some to find the resources to build their house, it is their house, and not something built by international donors with their contractors.
Manjula comments, ‘Red Cross has been strict with me during this process, but I am grateful for that – because I was able to finish the house.’
It really is a beautiful thing.