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In Peaceful Sri Lanka, Army Holds Thousands Of Acres Seized In Civil War


And now a reminder of the lasting effects of war. Off the southern tip of India sits the so-called Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka. That country has come through nearly three decades of civil war with government troops defeating separatists, the Tamil Tigers. In the six years since the war ended, the economy has progressed, and the country elects a new parliament this month. But the fighting displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians in the north, and many have yet to recover their lands. NPR's Julie McCarthy introduces us to some of the war's forgotten victims.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: For thousands of displaced, getting back their land is the unfinished business of the war.



ANTHONY QUINN: I don't feel free here.

MCCARTHY: Anthony Quinn lost his home to the Sri Lankan army at age 17. He's now 45. He badly limps in injury from shelling during the long war that ended with the government forces crushing the separatist Tamil Tigers. Ever since the military seized his family's house near the airport of Jaffna, the provincial capital of the north where the fighting raged, Quinn has lived in assorted crude encampments - no privacy, no sanitation. In this one with its barking dogs and corrugated tin walls, he raised four children.

QUINN: And they're asking me, papa, why we are staying here? We don't have our own land. We don't have our own place. We don't have our own house. We hate that place. We hate it.

MCCARTHY: He hates the squalor he and 685 other families in his camp have endured since being displaced inside their own country.

QUINN: Shame on our politician. Shame on our country. Shame on the United Nation also.

MCCARTHY: The U.N. says since the war ended in 2009, some 760,000 internally displaced people have registered as having returned to areas where they originally lived. But the U.N. also says that tens of thousands of internally displaced still live in, quote, "very precarious conditions." Forty-two-year-old Thamil-selvi Sri Kumar lives in an encampment beside Quinn's. The civil war was already 7 years old when she says her family ran for their lives to escape the fighting in June 1990. She's been here ever since - twenty-five years in a corrugated two-room house with a common toilet, where she says the children have been sick with disease. And it's difficult to live in two rooms, particularly when there's really very little shelter from the elements. What happens when it rains here?

THAMIL-SELVI SRI KUMAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: She says water pours through everywhere, and sometimes the walls collapse. While the internally displaced mark time, life around them has picked up. Ice cream shops flourish in once battle-hardened cities. Refurbished trains now trundle down the coast on restored tracks. Hope also flickered with the government decision to hand back 1,000 acres of land the army had confiscated and continued to occupy six years after the war had ended. When Tamil leader and chief minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, challenged the army to return the other 5,500 acres near the Jaffna airport, he was told security demanded the army keep the land.

C.V. WIGNESWARAN: Now, this is all land belonging to our people. What on earth have you taken this as a high security zone when the war was over five years ago? Why don't you give us the 5,500 acres back?

MCCARTHY: He says people who do return to their homes have a rude shock.

WIGNESWARAN: Nothing is there. One or two trees are there, which we can identify, but we cannot identify anything else. There is nothing. There's just bare land.

MCCARTHY: Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group, says even now the army is disproportionally deployed in the north and that the military's push into commercial farming and tourism has expanded its hold on civilian land. Keenan says there's no indication the army plans to downsize or embrace any meaningful reconciliation with the Tamil population.

ALAN KEENAN: Police powers have been once again granted to the military, so the military is able to continue to arrest and detain and question people on the street. So there's been no fundamental shift, but it does seem that the new government at least wants the military to present a friendlier face to the local populations in the north and east.

MCCARTHY: The army did not respond to requests for comment. Keenan says there is no clear picture of the acreage of land that the military is holding or the number of people affected. He says only a comprehensive needs assessment would determine that. But years of waiting have made long-displaced Anthony Quinn skeptical that he'll ever get his land back.

QUINN: We don't trust the thing it'll happen.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.