63-year-old Sinnapu Anthonia Vaas believed that her struggle was over: thanks to her persistent efforts in collaboration with other women, in April 2017, the navy agreed on giving her land back. But her happiness was not to last: the navy has still not given her her land back.
"Our struggle paid off," said Sinnapu Anthonia Vaas at the end of April 2017. After having camped with her fellow campaigners in front of the main entrance to the navy camp in Mullikulam for 38 days, the navy finally backed down at the end of April and promised to give the women part of their land back. The women were deeply disappointed: until today, they have not gotten their lands back.
The village of Mullikulam, near Mannar, is Sinnapu Anthonia Vaas’s home. However, this mother of three’s life has been shaped by displacement: she and her children were displaced for the first time by the military in 1990, during the Sri Lankan Civil War. After long years spent in India and later as internally displaced persons in the Mannar region, they were able to return to their village. From the Catholic Church, they received a permit to use 2.4 hectares of land for rice cultivation. From 2002 to 2007, the family spent happy years on this land, which was just 500 metres from the sea, when they were able to live off both fishing and rice cultivation.
Internally displaced persons band together
Their happiness was not to last though: on the 1st of September 2007, Sinnapu Anthonia Vaas learnt that the navy was coming. "I locked myself up in the church with my family, full of fear," she recalls. The village was sealed off for days, without any connection to the outside world, and food was strictly rationed. "On the seventh day, the residents were finally asked to leave their land for a short time. We were promised that we could return soon," recounts the activist. Thus, together with her family, she fled to Mannar Island, where she lived for four years in a temporary hut in a private individual’s garden.
"In 2012, we decided to return home, together with other former village residents from Mullikulam," says Sinnapu Anthonia Vaas. They first protested outside, beside the navy camp, and built small huts for themselves there. Later, they regained access to the church and the school. Although they were thrown out again, the school was successfully reopened and they obtained permission to attend the church once a week. After that, things remained quiet in Mullikulam for a relatively long period. The navy had succeeded in undermining the protests with the aid of informants. This year, encouraged by other protests in Sri Lanka and disappointed with their men, the women of the village once again began to demand their land back. On the 23rd of March this year, the women installed themselves in front of the main entrance to the navy camp. "We will stay here until we get our land back," they told the navy personnel. With their dedication, they even aroused the interest of politicians, government representatives, other activists, people from the media, church representatives and international organisations. At the end of April, they finally received the good news that the navy was to give the village residents part of their land back. But the navy did not keep its promise and Anthonia can still not go back on her land.
"Yet, a succes would be really important, so that other affected persons would be encouraged in their protests," says Yves Bowie, STP Campaign Manager Sri Lanka, who visited the activist several times before and during the protests, and also organised a workshop on land rights for the residents of Mullikulam, as well as for other affected individuals. Although countless people in Sri Lanka are still waiting to get their land back – and just as Sinnapu Anthonia Vaas, they are being deeply disappointed.