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The Road to Dignity
By Ameena Hussein

A few weeks ago, I met an intelligent and vibrant young woman who in conversation told me that she was against the Old Mannar Road being opened for travel as it would damage the environment of the Wilpattu National Park . This conversation was sandwiched between readings of numerous articles about this road – more publicity has been given to those against the road than those for the road. So, on the 23 rd of August 2010 , I decided to find out for myself what the furor was all about and traveled on the Old Mannar Road .

R.L. Brohier calls this The North Road, in his book Discovering Ceylon (1973) we pass Illavankulam and soon after crossing the Kala Oya, entered the Wilpattu National Park . It was 8.45 in the morning. The road, of medium size, is of red earth that seems to be a two lane road and does not appear to be that much wider than a Yala Park road. There are many Naval camps and check-points along the road. Frequently you see one or two men of the armed forces standing guard at varying intervals.

The traffic on the road is few and far between, we saw one lorry with woven cadjan leaves strapped to the roof, crammed with Muslim men and women in the back, traveling in the same direction as us. A lone double cab, a lone motor bike and with some regularity, Naval trucks passed us by. We did not stop, in fact no-one stopped and no-one traveled at excessive speed. There are plenty of signs saying the maximum speed is 40 km. I have seen many jeeps travel much faster in the Yala and Uda Walawe wild life parks. There was no litter on this side, a contrast to two weeks earlier when I visited Wilpattu National Park from the Kala Oya entrance and found our truck stopping to pick up plastic bags and bottles that had been thrown by careless visitors to the park. We did not see any animals but we saw many eagles flying above us. The journey through the park took us one and half hours traveling often at 20 kilometers an hour. In total our journey from our starting point to the end of the park on the other side took us two hours.

As soon as you pass the Modaragam Oya, you see a number of takaran huts set up close to one another. The first thought I had was that it was very inappropriate shelter and would be very hot in those huts. We saw a number of Muslim men, women and children living in those huts. They seem to have very little amenities. It looked very much like a refugee camp. This is Mullikulam. There is a naval camp close to these huts. Soon after, you see another settlement of cadjan huts. This is huge, stretched out and alongside a wewa. A woman I spoke to said they had come back to their ancestral lands after living for twenty years as refugees in Puttalam. They stated that they had got no assistance from anyone to resume their lives.

We continued on to Arippu (which was our final destination) seeing dotted here and there these resettlement camps that were constructed of takaran or cadjan. But further inquiry revealed that these settlements continue up to Musali. At three o’clock we presented ourselves at the Chilavatturai barrier as instructed for our journey back. We were told that unfortunately the Modaragam Aru had flooded and the road was impassable. We had to come back to Puttalam on an alternative route. Using small by- roads we came to Nochiyagama and then to Puttalam and that journey took us five hours. Had we taken the Medawachchiya–Anuradhapura-Puttlam road, it would have taken us much, much longer. Perhaps, six to seven hours.

Why am I telling you all this? The reason being, the young woman who kicked off my story, indicated that she was against the road because she did not think saving one hour of travel time (this is her estimate) warranted the ‘destruction’ of this National Park by the construction of a road for a few people. In 2007 the statistics for Northern displaced Muslims in Puttalam were 75,000. And in fact the road is not being ‘constructed’ having existed for at least a 100 years.

Having gone on this road, and seen the Northern Muslims reduced to camp like conditions for a second time with no assistance towards their efforts to go back home, this road is a vital and important link between their previously displaced lives and their current lives. There are no schools, hospitals or any other service providers in these new ‘refugee’ camps. I have to say that in my opinion this road is vital and necessary for the movement of one of the oldest displaced and forgotten populations of Sri Lanka .

This forgotten population was displaced from the North in 1990 by the LTTE who gave them little or no notice to evacuate their homes. They left with virtually the clothes on their back, leaving their ancestral properties, their farmlands, their mosques, schools and everything they had known all their lives. They led the lives of refugees for the next twenty years, living in the Puttalam district like beggars. It’s not that they have not tried to return since they were driven out but the fear of re-expulsion and the cycles of war, meant that the few who tried rarely succeeded in building back their lives until now.

This road allows them to access their original homes, start preparing their fields for cultivation, begin the journey of having normal lives after twenty years. However, without basic amenities, it is reasonable to assume that they will still have ties to their adoptive homes of twenty years. Their children will still be going to school in Puttalam, until new schools are built in their part of the Mannar district; they will still access health care in Puttalam, until hospitals are restored in their towns, they will still pray in Puttalam mosques until the mosques are renovated in the village, they will buy Puttalam produce until a pola is set up in their areas once again.

They do not travel in air conditioned vehicles, instead they travel in the backs of lorries and trucks, seated on the floor with their possessions on their laps, making the journey back and forth, back and forth, trying to regain lost lands, lost livelihoods, lost dignity, lost dreams.

If anyone thinks that I am making a case for the road over the environment that is incorrect. I do not for one moment think that the Wilpattu Park or the wildlife within should be destroyed for this road. But the people who use it are not asking for a tarred road, nor are they asking that the road be kept open 24 hours for their use. In fact the way the road is utilized now, is fine. It is open until 3pm on both sides. There are strict speed limits. You cannot stop anywhere on the road. The people using it respect the importance of the Wildlife park as a heritage of their environment and use it with care.

It is important to mention at this point that I am only talking about the Old Mannar Road and not the new coast road that is being built in secrecy and for which I do not have enough information.

But it is clear that the Old Mannar Road is vital for the displaced people. To deny them access through this road is to make us question our priorities. To me the choice is easy.

Ameena Hussein is the author of The Moon in the Water and co-founder of the Perera Hussein Publishing House. This article was published in The Nation on the 5 th of September 2010.

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