Resting Place

A Tamil town’s struggle to reclaim its land and cemetery

After the Sri Lankan civil war, Sampur’s residents returned to find their town fenced and gated off. A single pillar was all that remained of a local Hindu temple. {{name}}
01 October, 2015

In the early hours of the rainy Sunday morning of 10 May, a Tamil farmer died in Sampur, on the east coast of Sri Lanka. As he was slowly wasting away from throat cancer, his widow told me, he had wanted nothing more than to breathe his last here, in his hometown. “He had the dream of coming back,” she said. He got his wish on a friend’s property not far from the plot of land he farmed until 2006, when he and his family were forced off it amid the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009.

When I met the widow, in August, she told me of her determination that her husband be laid to rest in the town. (She also asked me not to use her name, for her protection.) Since Sampur’s cremation facilities were destroyed in the war, she said, a burial in the town’s cemetery was the only funeral rite available to Hindus such as her and her husband. There was just one catch: no one had been buried in Sampur’s cemetery—and no civilian had even set foot on its grounds—in almost a decade.

Sampur and its surrounding villages—covering an area of around 1,500 acres—were occupied by the Sri Lankan military in 2006, when government forces attacked local bases of the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for an independent Tamil homeland. Roughly 4,000 families—most of them Tamil—fled. When they returned after the war, they found Sampur off bounds, its buildings destroyed, and their fertile lands fenced off and carved up, like a prize pie, between the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Sri Lanka Navy, and Sri Lanka Gateway Industries. SLGI, a private company, is suspected to have close ties to Mahinda Rajapaksa, then the country’s hard-line president, who enjoyed strong support from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, cultivated Sinhalese chauvinism, and militarised former war zones in the country’s Tamil-majority northern and eastern provinces.

With their land deeds suddenly worthless, Sampur’s once-prosperous farmers and fishermen were forced into displacement camps run by the Sri Lankan government, where they endured harassment and squalor. The Rajapaksa government, eager to muzzle discord, offered the displaced families resettlement deals. But these were meagre, and most families refused. Several chose instead to file lawsuits against the seizure of their property. Six years of stalemate ensued, and by the time the farmer developed cancer the odds that he would ever see his hometown again looked bleak.

That changed in January 2015, when Maithripala Sirisena—a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet who made a surprise defection to the opposition—ousted the incumbent in a presidential election that was marred by violence and seemed, at its outset, firmly set to return Rajapaksa to power. Votes from Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities were key to Sirisena’s victory. In Sampur, where all the residents I spoke to said they voted for the new president, hope soared that Sirisena would bring down the fences around the town.

Within a month, Sampur residents’ lawsuits, long stalled in the courts, began to move forward, and Sirisena issued an executive order to return over 800 acres occupied by SLGI. But the company parried with a lawsuit of its own, leaving the land’s fate again suspended. During the Rajapaksa years, there was never any doubt as to who would prevail in this struggle. Now, as supporters of Rajapaksa and Sirisena jockeyed for power, its outcome, and Sampur’s future, became a test of the new government’s will and ability to change course.

Meanwhile, the farmer was dying. His family’s land was part of the 800 acres tied up in the SLGI lawsuit, which was still pending before the Sri Lankan supreme court. His wife brought him to the only place in Sampur they could get to—a friend’s house on a small tranche of land released by Rajapaksa as a sop before the January vote. That was where he passed away.

But the cemetery lay on the territory of a navy camp. The widow approached the camp’s officers to ask permission for a burial, and, to her surprise, they did not object. This was a dramatic departure from relations during Rajapaksa’s rule, when the mostly Sinhalese navy and Sampur’s residents regarded each other as bitter foes, and access to navy land was categorically denied. By quietly allowing the unconventional burial of a Hindu farmer, the officers acted more like reluctant tenants than enemy occupiers. On the evening of 10 May, after a group of locals spent hours clearing the jungle that had covered the cemetery’s old graves, the farmer was buried there.

Two months later, after the supreme court ruled against SLGI, about 250 families, including the farmer’s widow and her two daughters, were allowed back onto their land. They found Sampur’s main street, once lined with gardened homes, reduced to dust and dry scrub. Of a Hindu temple nearby, only one pillar remained. The family’s land was overgrown, and their house destroyed. When I visited, the widow was living in a wood-and-tarpaulin shelter erected in the middle of the brush. Still, as she showed me around, she could not help but smile. She was overjoyed to be back, no matter the circumstances.

In July, Rajapaksa launched a bid for a comeback that many Sampur residents feared could jeopardise the return of their property. He stood as a candidate in a parliamentary election in August, and won a seat, but did not secure enough support to realise his goal of becoming prime minister. With Sirisena still in power, there is hope that Sampur will get all its land back, and set a precedent for all of the 6,000 or so acres of territory across Sri Lanka that remain under military occupation since the war. But that hinges on the successful release of the remaining land—which, as the political transition plays out, no one can yet be certain will happen. “We can celebrate on one level,” Bhavani Fonseka, the lawyer leading Sampur’s case, told me when we met in Colombo shortly before the election. “But it’s also so fragile.”

Since the parliamentary election, the Sirisena government has continued, as it has promised, to release Sampur’s land in increments—though the cemetery remains under navy control, meaning the widow cannot yet visit her husband’s grave. Sirisena made an unprecedented visit to the town in late August, when he prayed at a local Hindu temple and announced the release of over 200 more acres of land. A few days later, the American embassy in Colombo pledged $1 million towards resettlement work in Sampur, to be used for building schools and providing basic needs for returning families.

Even with that help, Sampur’s returnees face the daunting task of rebuilding their town from scratch. The widow told me she spends 1,200 Sri Lankan rupees each day—roughly $9—paying labourers to clear vegetation from her property. The government has promised compensation of 38,000 rupees, or about $275, to each of Sampur’s displaced families, but that won’t cover even half of what the widow estimated it will take to complete the job. Sampur’s most enduring problems—debt and destroyed livelihoods, to name a couple, both endemic throughout Sri Lanka’s post-conflict areas—are very far from being solved.


Beyond the matters of financial rehabilitation, though, lies the even thornier issue of justice in a country still deeply traumatised and ethnically divided. Last month, following a UN report on “horrific” violence committed by both sides in the civil war, the Sri Lankan government rebuffed calls for a court of international and local judges to investigate possible abuses. Instead, it insisted on forming its own commission for truth, justice and reconciliation. But, as the UN report warned, Sri Lanka is “not yet ready to handle these types of crime” alone. A purely domestic process is unlikely to meaningfully address grievances of discrimination and wartime abuse, in Sampur or beyond. Returning property and handing out cheques is certainly an improvement over occupation and displacement, but no one I spoke to in Sampur called it fair redress.

The farmer’s widow, for her part, preferred to focus on the future. Now 60 years old, she told me she wants to get her daughters married, build a small house, and, as she put it, “live happily.” Against all odds, her husband got his wish. The question now is whether thousands like her will get theirs.

Sarah Stodder Sarah Stodder is a freelance writer based in New York. You can read more of her work in San Francisco magazine. She is on Twitter as @SarahStodder.