“We knew the bicycles were going to play a vital role. This was one of the first things we did when people started to return to their villages,” Rupavthi Keetheswaran, the government agent for Kilinochchi District, told IRIN.
At the end of the war on 18 May 2009, the bicycles, many in poor condition, were found abandoned along a narrow strip of coastal area in Mullaitivu District.
Thousands of Tamil civilians, many with little more than the clothes on their back, fled to the so-called “no-fire zone” to escape fighting between government forces and the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.
According to aid workers at the time, an estimated 200,000 civilians were trapped in the 12km-long area.
Provincial authorities ordered the bikes collected and repaired, before providing them to returnees to the area over the past year.
The decision was prompted by the lack of public transport and poor roads in interior areas of the former conflict zone, popularly known as the Vanni, officials say.
“There is hardly any public transport service in some of the remote areas, so the bicycle becomes almost essential,” Anthonypillai Vinotharaj, additional director for the Ministry of Economic Development in the Northern Province, explained.
“The bicycle is the main means of transport. Most of the time it’s the only means,” Chandradas Chandran, 55, one of more than 500 returnees to the village of Thunakkai in Mullaitivu District, explained.
Residents of the largely agricultural community have no choice but to walk or use a bicycle if they want to reach the A9 highway 20km away, the only place with a regular public bus service.
The A9 is one of the few places public transport can be found The highway, which stretches for 110km through the Vanni, has undergone major reconstruction work over the past two years, but most of the area’s interior roads remain untouched due to limited financial resources, according to government officials.
Most roads are unpaved or riddled with potholes after years of neglect, making travel slow, particularly during the rains.
But despite that reality, and the obvious cost factors, the desire for many returnees to have their own bicycle remains.
“Without a bicycle, nothing can be done here,” conceded Sarojuni Sethikumara, a 31-year-old mother-of-two.
Struggling to make ends meet, she has only recently been able to save the US$100 needed to buy a bicycle by selling milk from her two cows and vegetables from her garden.
“It was money we could barely afford, but I had to get one,” she said.
According to a recent survey by the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development in the Vanni, 89 percent of returnee families have no regular income.
The most recent UN Situation Report released in late June states that 63 percent of the Vanni population lived below the poverty line of less than $1 of spending power per day.
Officials say that until residents have a steady income, proper roads and regular public transport, the bicycle’s role will be paramount.
“We need more, because it will take some time for the roads and the transport system to be satisfactory,” Vinotharaj said.
More than 365,000 Sri Lankans have returned to their homes in the north since the end of the conflict.