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.