Feature Article

Peace gives no light to Vakarai

[TamilNet, Saturday, 31 January 2004, 00:32 GMT]
Vakarai is a large backwater on Sri Lanka’s east coast. It is an area with large fertile fields, lagoons and virgin forests in the northern part of the Batticaloa district. Vakarai was subjected to more than fifteen years of a brutal counter insurgency campaign by the Sri Lanka army. It has seen hardly any development even after the war stopped two years ago. Electricity is still a luxury here. “I have never seen electricity used in Vakarai since I was born,” N.Loganathan, a resident of Panichchankerni, told TamilNet.

Vaharai Development
Vaharai resident N.Logananthan
"In 1994 presidential elections President Kumaratunge party men promised to bring electricity to our region. Nothing happened after she came to power. Although we raise this issue with our parliamentarians regularly, funds are very rarely allocated to develop this region," said a dejected Loganathan.

Vakarai has a rich inland and coastal fisheries industry. Prawns and soft shell crabs from the region’s lagoons are much sought after by connoisseurs.

But Vakarai’s fisheries industry cannot be developed because there is no electricity. In recent years Colombo has been providing electricity to hundreds of remote Sinhala villages under a well-funded rural electrification project.

Vaharai Development
Fourteen year school girl Rasiah Reha
Fourteen year old Rasiah Reha, a student in the Panichchankerni Government Tamil Mixed School, told TamilNet she is keen to learn about computers. "We do not have the necessary facilities, equipment or technical schools where we can learn technical skills. We need electricity like what the schoolchildren in towns have. Then we can study even at night," Reha said.

The SLA in Kayankerni, south of Vakarai, pirates electricity from the power grid at Navalady Junction. "The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) loses a lot of money by this piracy. But we feel that the CEB is recovering the loss from consumers in Batticaloa," a resident of Kayankerny said. When TamilNet asked a CEB official in Batticaloa about this, he declined to comment.

The Vakarai region encompasses a large expanse of land north of Navalady Junction extending 50km to the Verugal River (a branch of Mahaweli, Sri Lanka’s longest river). Navalady Junction, which is garrisoned by the SLA, lies 34km North of Batticaloa town, on the Batticaloa-Colombo road.

The region’s eastern boundary extends to the shores overlooking Bay of Bengal and the west lined by agricultural land and forests. Batticaloa-Trincomalee highway (A-15) passes through Vakarai.

The villages of Kayankerni, Mankerni, Pannichchankerni, Vakarai, Kandalady, Paalchenai and Kathiravelly lie along A-15 (from south to north). Several small villages dot the hinterlands of Vakarai region. The Uppaar lagoon separates the coast and the hinterland. Vakarai village proper lies east of the lagoon by the coast.

Vakarai was slowly developing into a mini town despite the odds in the early eighties – the main centre serving the large agricultural hinterland and a growing fisheries industry. Several public offices and facilities were built here.

Vakarai Region Map
(Click on th e image for a larger Map)

A rural hospital, offices of the Assistant Government Agent, a scenic rest house, general post office, telecommunications building, multi-purpose co-operative society, Catholic churches and temples and other buildings amidst large brick houses of affluent families gave an urban appearance to Vakarai before the war erupted in 1983.

The village became a virtual open prison camp when the Sri Lanka army established a camp there. Many youth arrested by the military went missing. Human rights activists in the east accused the Sri Lankan military in Vakarai of intimidation, indiscriminate arrest and detention, extortion, sexual harassment and rape at the time. Colombo ignored their reports and complaints.

Those who could afford it left Vakarai, fearing for the safety of their children, to settle in Batticaloa town. Some emigrated to Canada.

The Sri Lanka army tightened its grip on Vakarai further when fighting broke out again in June 1990, months after the Indian Peace keeping Force left the northeast.

In a US style counter insurgency campaign, the military drove people out of their villages in the interior, setting fire to their homes and crops and breaching tanks to deny the Liberation Tigers all means of survival in the region’s large hinterland. Villagers thus driven away from their homes overnight were herded to refugee camps in villages along the Batticaloa- Mutur (A15) coastal road which were controlled and run as open prisons by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Interior villages in the Vakarai region such as Thonithattamadhu, Kattumurivukkulam, Kirumichchai became no go zones. Villagers who went in search of their abandoned cattle or for house hold goods were often shot dead or taken prisoner by SLA patrols that operated in the interior.

The SLA transformed the Vakarai region into a virtual ‘Eastern Vanni’. It imposed a harsh economic embargo on the region. Residents had to make arduous trips through five army checkpoints to Valaichchenai to obtain essential provisions for their daily living.

The military severely restricted the quantities of essential provisions and merchandise that residents could take to their villages in the entire Vakarai region. Each family was allowed to take 2 kg of sugar, 2 boxes of matches and 2kg rice. Building materials fuel, fertilisers, chocolates, paper etc, were also severely restricted. Camphor and alkaline batteries were completely banned.

In 1995 the military pulled out its troops from Vakarai village to beef up its forces in Jaffna for a major offensive into the peninsula.

Vaharai Development
Illegal transmission lines that carry power from Navalady to Panichchankerni SLA camp

The Liberation Tigers, despite years of sustained counter insurgency campaign by the SLA, moved into the coastal parts of northern Vakarai even as the last SLA truck was leaving the region.

Hoping to prevent them from consolidating their control in the area, Colombo bombed Vakarai. Sri Lanka Air Force planes bombed the Vakarai hospital, school, rest house and other public buildings. Many homes were reduced to rubble in the bombing raids.

Today, despite two years of peace, development is a bitter struggle for the people of Vakarai.

"The most basic requirement for development is rural electrification. Batticaloa got electricity in early 1930s. Trincomalee and Mutur too got power long ago. But Vakarai, which lies on the main coastal artery between the two main eastern districts is still be denied electrification," a Sri Lankan government official in Batticaloa told TamilNet, explaining development related problems in Vakarai.

"When we raise these issues, the stock answer from Colombo is that there is no cash in the treasury," he said, pointing out how the Sri Lankan government has been successfully expanding rural electrification in Sinhala areas.

Vakarai residents, however, take pride in living in one of the most fertile areas in Batticaloa district. They hope if they persist in their efforts they can convince international agencies to help develop the region.

Vaharai Development
Segment of A-15, Trincomalee-Batticaloa Road, between Vakarai and Navalady

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