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Sri Lanka: Displaced Tamils seek missing family

[AP, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 12:53 No Comment]

Of all the hardships in this sprawling displacement camp, people most bemoan not knowing what happened to relatives who disappeared in the chaos of the decisive battle that ended the prolonged war between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Scores of ethnic Tamils clustered on both sides of the barbed wire perimeter Tuesday seeking news of their families. Some said they return day after day without success. Many held wedding photographs or portraits of their loved ones, hoping someone would recognize them.

A military-sponsored tour for journalists to a small corner of the camp revealed scenes of heartbreak and misery among the 200,000 displaced crammed into the vast tent city hastily constructed on scrub land.

Tens of thousands more war-displaced people are scattered in smaller camps near Vavuniya, which used to be the army’s northern garrison on the edge of the territory ruled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The United Nations says together the camps house nearly 300,000 internally displaced people in wretched conditions.

One woman said her 2-year-old son was shot in the head while they were fleeing the unrelenting shelling and gunfire from both sides. When she reached Sri Lankan lines, she gave the child to soldiers who promised to take him to the hospital.

She’s heard nothing of him since.

Veluppilla Selvaraj, 39, was given emergency leave from his job as a security guard in Saudi Arabia to try to find his mother and sister. "I was here yesterday and the day before and the day before. I am still searching," he said.

The Sri Lankan military has refused to release the internal refugees, saying they must be screened to weed out any Tamil rebels who may be hiding among them. Access for international aid agencies has been restricted for the same reason.

Many told reporters about relatives taken away for questioning who so far have not returned.

"They are calling most of the Tamils LTTE," said a man who identified himself as Seevalingam, a former worker at the hospital at Killinochchi, once the rebel capital. He feared the displaced masses would be held here a long time.

The United Nations has called Manik Farm the world’s largest displacement camp. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after his own visit last week that he was saddened and moved by the experience.

Aid agencies have warned that a lack of sanitation and adequate medicine was allowing disease like hepatitis to spread.

Indeed, many of the inmates interviewed at Manik Farm said their children were suffering from diarrhea and other illnesses that stem from tainted water. One woman held up her baby who she said had diarrhea for three days. When she took him to the camp clinic the doctor said the child was fine and sent her away, she said.

Hundreds of mothers stood quietly in line waiting for soap, baby formula and aspirin. Others washed their toddlers in plastic basins. About two dozen men lined up with pails to draw water from a community well. They all emerged from between endless rows of white U.N. tents, each housing as many as 15 people.

On Monday, army commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka said concern remained high that the Tamil rebellion might try to re-form, and said he wanted a 50 percent boost in the military’s numbers even though the military victory over the LTTE was complete.

"There may be people abroad trying to promote a new leader and stage a comeback," Fonseka told the state-run Independent Television Network. "Our strength is 200,000 and it will become 300,000 soon. It will not be easy for them to build up a terror group as they did before."

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