Last year, a flotilla of 40 fishing boats set sail from northern Sri Lanka with a mission to seize back their island from navy occupation. The BBC’s Ayeshea Perera reports the extraordinary story of how they did this without any bloodshed.
On 23 April, a peculiar sight would have greeted a casual observer standing on the coast of northern Sri Lanka’s mainland, near the village of Iranamata Nagar. They would have seen Catholic priests, women, fishermen, local journalists and civil rights activists crowding onto dozens of tiny motorboats bedecked with white flags and setting determined sail for the island of Iranaitivu.
Their mission: to reclaim the island, their home for many generations and occupied by the Sri Lankan navy for 25 years.
Iranaitivu is really made up of two linked islands – Periyathivu and Sinnathivu. It lies in the Gulf of Mannar, between the southernmost tip of India and the north of Sri Lanka.
It is very much an idyllic paradise.
Aquamarine waters so clear that the fish swimming in it are visible to the naked eye, starfish on unspoiled golden beaches lined with swaying coconut palm fronds, waters so shallow and calm that you can walk about half a kilometre in without it ever reaching your knees the beauty is almost unreal.
Iranaitivu’s people say they were displaced in 1992 by the navy, who built a base there during the height of the civil war between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They are not alone – thousands of families in Northern Sri Lanka accuse the military of having occupied their lands during the war.
The villagers, who are Tamil, say they were forcibly settled on the mainland in Iranamata Nagar, between the cities of Jaffna and Mannar. They say they have not been allowed to return to the island since. The navy denies this.
Many of those on the boats were women. They told the BBC that they had been “scared” at the thought of potentially confronting armed naval officers, but were determined to do so in any case.
“At the most we expected that we would get some striking footage of a face-off between the naval vessels and our fleet of tiny boats which would help us generate more awareness for the community’s struggle,” said Fr Jeyabalan, one of the priests present on the day.
A patrol vessel usually docked at the island had been moved to deeper waters, and no other naval ship was visible. The villagers were able to land their boats on the island and walk ashore.
“We were crying, we kissed the beaches. We were home once more and we were never going to leave,” said local community leader Shamin Bonivas.
The group walked over to the dilapidated remains of the island’s church to offer prayer.
It was only then, they say, that some of the naval officers stationed on the island approached. The people informed the officers that they had returned, and were there to stay. The local school teacher produced a file where he had meticulously stored all their land deeds.
Fr Jeyabalan says that after some discussion the navy agreed to let those with the deeds stay on the island for the night, while the others left in the evening. The group spent the day meandering on the beaches, visiting the compounds where their houses once stood and picking coconuts and other fruit from the trees.
A few even ventured into the shallow waters around the island where they were able to easily find fish and prized sea cucumber, which are in high demand in China and elsewhere.
Some villagers set off to recapture some of the cattle they had been forced to abandon, but soon came running back. The cattle were now wild and would not tolerate their former owners’ clumsy attempts to reclaim them.