On the razor’s edge – recovery in Northern Sri Lanka

Date Publish: 
Sri Lanka / Asia

A haircut and a shave in Edward Roshan’s barber shop outside Killinochchi, northern Sri Lanka costs just under two dollars. He and his family have become specialists in close shaves – their life over the past seven years is a blur of conflict, escape, hunger, hardship, loss of identity and fear.

Now this father of two who has been to hell and back is forging a new life for himself with a small grant received from the EU via IOM. His barber shop, at Parantan Junction, has been completely rebuilt from the war ruin it became in 2008, as he and his family ran for their lives when two years fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended up on their doorstep.

Edward, his wife, and two small children survived the nightmare final showdown. He was among the group of several thousand Tamils who were forced by the LTTE to follow them into the ever-smaller “fire free zones”, eventually ending up on the beach at Mullaitivu, scared witless with nowhere further to run.

“My children were six years and eight months old,” he remembers. “It was terrible. Lots of my relatives were injured and people were shot down in front of us. Our own survival felt very questionable. We had a little rice, but it was difficult to find water.”

For a time he lived in what was the world’s largest camp for displaced persons at Manik Farm. Then, reunited with his family, he and his wife sold her jewellery to start a barber shop with his brother.

Then his life took another twist. He found it difficult to settle after his experiences. “I was always thinking that the war might restart and everything reminded me of those incidents. I needed to leave the country”.

Along with dozens of others he paid thousands of dollars for a secretive journey, organised by a company in France, that promised a new life in Canada. A plane took him and his family to Delhi, then to Addis Ababa and finally to Togo. They then walked across country to Benin, where an agent told them they would wait for three months for a boat which would take them on to Canada.

Nine months later, after enduring privation “like being back in the war again” they realised they were not going to move further. Some of the men escaped and notified IOM, who managed to arrange for the whole group to be repatriated.

Edward received a grant of USD 4,500 which enabled him to open his own shop, Theepa Salon, on the spot where his previous business stood. He employed three of his friends as partners and they are doing a brisk business, from 7am to 9pm, six days a week.

Killinochchi, the former headquarters of the Tamil Tigers, is rebuilding now. New business are opening, hotels are getting a lick of paint. Bakeries, shops, sawmills and internet cafes are bustling.

But Edward is wary about saying he has given up on his dream of emigrating.  “If I could go again legally, I would.”

His uncertainty for the future is something that IOM is trying hard to address. “It is hugely important for us to continue to fund community development programmes across the island”, stresses Richard Danziger, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Sri Lanka.

“Jobs and a sense of self-worth prevent tensions from spilling over. More than that, they keep communities together and prevent the exploitation of would-be migrants. And migrants or failed asylum seekers who are unsuccessful in remaining overseas need to know that there is a chance for them to have another shot at making it work back at home”.

Edward Roshan (second from  left) with his business partners at Theela Salon, just outside Killinochchi  © Joe Lowry 2013
Edward Roshan, owner   of Theela Salon near Killochchi which he rebuilt thanks to IOM/Government of Canada support  © Joe Lowry 2013