Sutharshan Uthayaswriyan has walked past the same scruffy acacia tree to get water for his family for the past 23 years. He came to this “welfare village”, to use its euphemistic Sri Lankan government label, when he was seven, after his home was taken over by state forces in 1990. There is no prospect of moving back home for the foreseeable future.
The “village” of Kannaki is effectively part of a refugee camp, a tangle of bamboo and corrugated-iron homes in Vali North on the outskirts of Jaffna, the Tamil capital. But the difference with this camp is that the several hundred people who live here seem to have been forgotten by the outside world, by governments and aid agencies.
Despite the “welfare village” name, these displaced Tamils of northern Sri Lanka receive no state handouts or government help, so instead Mr Uthayaswriyan, now the deputy leader of the village council, and his people have to scratch a living from labouring or other manual work.
The sanitation blocks, which provide one toilet cubicle for every 40 people and where families queue for two-and-a-half hours for clean water every morning, carry blue and white “Unicef 2007” logos, but the UN has not had a presence here since 2009. It is no wonder that Mr Uthayaswriyan saw David Cameron’s visit, the first by a world leader to the camp, as divine intervention. He said: “We believe in David Cameron – he is God, coming to this area. We believe he can make a difference. He is God, and sent by God to us.”
After being ignored for so long, refugees in their own country, Mr Uthayaswriyan and his fellow Tamils have high expectations from the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron has spent the past week in the run-up to Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth summit declaring how he is the first head of government to visit the north of Sri Lanka since independence in 1948. There have been promises of “shining a light” on the treatment of the Tamil minority by the Sri Lankan government, secret police and army, of confronting President Mahinda Rajapaksa over allegations of war crimes in the civil war’s final offensive in 2009. When Mr Uthayaswriyan said Mr Cameron had been sent by God, he seemed serious: his people believe the Prime Minister can deliver them back their land.
Mr Cameron was mobbed by villagers when he arrived in his convoy, accompanied by British journalists and, it seemed, several Sri Lankan government agents dressed as poor refugees but who carried iPhones, filming whoever the PM spoke to. One woman who has lived here since she was a child told Mr Cameron she wanted nothing more than to go to her own home. The villagers – perhaps fearing reprisals if they speak out – do not criticise President Rajapaksa or his government; they just want their land back.
But some Tamils are bolder. At the offices of the Uthayan newspaper, a Tamil-language daily in central Jaffna, the editor and its staff have faced repeated intimidation and violence. Six journalists have been killed since 2001 and another is missing. They are clear that government-backed forces are behind it. Even though more than four years have passed since the end of the civil war, the violence has continued: at 4am on 13 April this year, masked men on motorbikes smashed their way into a room where that day’s newspaper was still rolling off the presses. Bullets were fired, but the seven staff present escaped unharmed. The press was set alight, and today remains out of action. The newspaper uses other facilities but they are slower. Despite this chief editor M V Kaanamylnathan and his team still get the news out, delivering many of their 36,000 daily copies by motorbike. President Rajapaksa’s government expressed irritation in advance at Mr Cameron’s planned trip to the north, but it was his visit to the newspaper that officials were the most resistant to. After an assassination attempt, Mr Kaanamylnathan has lived in the building for six years, only venturing out for medical treatment. The editor showed the Prime Minister graphic poster-sized pictures of the corpses of the six murdered journalists. Bastian George Sahayathas, the newspaper’s marketing manager, was shot at his desk on 2 May 2006.
“Britain has the responsibility to change things and I think it can do that,” said news editor Albert Thevarajan. Tharumangan Tinesh, a 36-year-old reporter sitting under the posters of his dead colleagues, added: “Our families are a bit scared to send us to work, but we like this field and we are working for the truth. We hope that after Mr Cameron’s visit there will be less harassment.”
Earlier, following talks with the chief minister of the northern province at Jaffna’s library, which was torched by a mob in 1981, Mr Cameron was confronted by up to 200 mainly female Tamil demonstrators brandishing photographs of their missing relatives. The women were thrown aside by Sri Lankan police officers.
Mr Cameron said: “There are some images that are incredibly powerful. Going to the headquarters of a Tamil newspaper here in northern Sri Lanka and seeing pictures of journalists shot and killed on the walls, and hearing stories of journalists who have disappeared long after the war has ended – that will stay with me.
“The fact about this country is that there is a chance of success because the war is over, the terrorism has finished, the fighting is done. Now what’s needed is generosity and magnanimity from the Sri Lankan government to bring the country together.”
The Prime Minister, his officials and British journalists travelled back to Colombo on a small charter aircraft operated by a commercial arm of the Sri Lankan air force. State officials – this time in uniform – sat among the journalists in the cabin. Mr Cameron was running a few minutes late for a face-to-face meeting with President Rajapaksa before both leaders were due to sit down with fellow Commonwealth leaders and Prince Charles for the summit dinner. In the hour-long meeting, Mr Cameron pushed his points “very directly and robustly” on an independent inquiry into war crimes, and on religious and media freedoms.
The Prime Minister, who was accused of treating Sri Lanka like a colony by one Sri Lankan minister this week, quoted Churchill at the President – “in victory, magnanimity” – stressing that Mr Rajapaksa can transform Sri Lanka if he does more on reconciliation with the Tamils. The conversation was “lively” – diplomatic language for a row – and the President reminded Mr Cameron that the Sinhalese faced terror from the Tamil Tigers.
There was a sign of acknowledgement from the President, according to British sources present; Mr Rajapaksa said that, with time, he can deliver progress. Yet, crucially, Mr Cameron came away with no firm commitments. The Prime Minister succeeded in shining a light on the north of Sri Lanka, and now intense international pressure is on Mr Rajapaksa. Mr Cameron will continue to raise the plight of the Tamils at international summits. But, for now, Mr Uthayaswriyan’s hopes of divine intervention appear dimmed.