Iranaitheevu, Sri Lanka – Last month, in an extraordinary act of courage, more than 350 members of Sri Lankan Tamil minority defied military restrictions and successfully reclaimed their homes on the navy-occupied island of Iranaitheevu after 26 years of forced displacement.
It is the first time since the South Asian country’s civil war ended in 2009 that civilians have successfully reclaimed occupied land without government permission.
Three weeks later, on May 15, the government relented and finally granted the community official permission to return home.
A 1992 navy offensive during the war forced all 650 of Iranaitheevu’s residents to flee by boat across the Palk Strait to Iranaimaatha Nagar on Sri Lanka’s mainland.
The community was never able to reclaim its home, as the war forced them to displace several more times over the next 17 years.
When the Sri Lankan government secured a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist group, in 2009 it also forcibly detained 300,000 Tamil civilians including the Iranaitheevu community in militarised displacement camps that were notorious for their inhumane conditions and rampant human rights abuses.
Even after the government released most Iranaitheevu community members from the camps six months later, it never authorised them to return home.
Instead, the navy remained on the island, and the Iranaitheevu community returned to Iranaimaatha Nagar.
Although the war has now been over for nearly a decade, the Sri Lankan military c