The snakes moved in when the people moved out. So did scorpions and biting lizards. In the jungle villages of northern Sri Lanka, nature slowly took over after people abandoned their homes to flee shelling.
A long civil war kept villagers away from home for years. When the war ended in 2009, families left displacement camps and made their way back. Many homes were bombed; sometimes the walls were standing, but the roofs were gone. Thousands of families had to create makeshift shelters out of tarps and salvaged wood. Many slept on the ground.
At night, villagers keep sticks handy to kill creatures that got too close. But with no electricity or lamps to see by, they didn’t always succeed.
For years as they fled the war, people also faced other intruders. “Women and children were subject to sexual violence during displacement,” says Michael Hatch, who managed Catholic Relief Services’ post-war shelter programs. Even in camps for displaced people, he says, “a tent can be cut with a knife. Especially when you have people who are living in desperation, the potential for crime increases.”
Proper shelters with concrete floors don’t keep out all threats, but offer far more protection than a tent. With monsoon rains striking each autumn, villagers need roofs too.
With funding from Catholic Relief Services, local partner Caritas has built more than 2,700 homes for families hurt by the war in Sri Lanka. With thick cement floors and concrete blocks for the lower part of the walls, the homes shield villagers from jungle threats. Woven palm thatch for the upper walls keeps the homes cool, and tin roofs keep the rain out.
Naheswari, a mother of four, spent years living in a refugee camp in southern India. There they lived in a cramped house with about 10 other refugee families. Later, they made their way back to Sri Lanka, but couldn’t live on their own land because it was still in the war’s path. Even when the conflict ended, many families had to wait months for their villages to be cleared of mines.
After years of exile, Naheswari was able to return to her small village in November 2010. “I was really happy about coming back. This is my birthplace,” she says. “I like to live in my home village.”
But the family’s home had been destroyed and their parched land, untilled for years, was hard to farm. Just a few months after they returned, Naheswari’s husband, an alcoholic, committed suicide.
Naheswari was alone, with teenage children to keep in school. CRS not only built her a house, but also gave her vouchers to choose stock for her own village store. Now she sells things like flour and sugar, keeping her tiny store open six days a week. She closes up when darkness falls and watches out for snakes when it does.
Her neighbor Parameswari is also grateful for the house CRS gave her, along with a cow. She too is alone, living with her elderly mother. She was excited about the prospect of returning to her village after nearly three decades living in refugee camps or with host families. But “if I hadn’t received this house, I wouldn’t have come back home,” she says. “I would have stayed on with a host family or on government land as a squatter.”
“Especially after living outside so long and living the camps, that sense of security is really important,” says Hatch.
“For any woman living alone with children, to be able to lock your doors—it gives them psychological peace of mind.”
Life won’t be easy for anyone in the villages. But the bombs have stopped, and now over 2,500 families have houses that will keep out other dangers.
Along with safety, the new homes offer more intangible benefits. “This has given people dignity,” says Hatch. “Villagers have been living in tents for so long, first in displacement camps and then back in their villages. Now they can put down their things and say, ‘I’m staying.’”
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