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Sri Lanka’s Refugees Trapped After War – WSJ.com

[Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 21:26 No Comment]
By PETER WONACOTT

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka — Before reaching the corrugated metal shelters of a refugee camp here, Noroshan Nallathambi and his family faced a dilemma: disclose what they say was his forced conscription to the Tamil Tiger rebels or keep quiet.

In the end, the 21-year-old Mr. Nallathambi decided to step forward at an army checkpoint 10 days ago, according to his family members. They haven’t seen him since. "We don’t know where he’s gone," says the young man’s 60-year-old grandfather, Shivasubramaniam Indrani.

After Sri Lanka’s army finished off the Tamil Tigers as a fighting force last week, the Sri Lankan government turned its attention to rooting out those who may have served in the separatist guerrilla movement — willingly or unwillingly. Though the government says the security screening is necessary to squeeze the last breaths from a 26-year insurgency, the process is proving wrenching for families who survived the war only to be separated in peace.

So far, say army officials, the screening process has netted more than 9,000 Tamil Tigers. Most came forward voluntarily, and are being sent off, army officials say, for what will be six months at rehabilitation camps to be taught vocational skills and monitored to make sure they don’t harbor allegiance to the Tigers and their violent separatist movement. A few hundred hard-core insurgents will be kept longer, army officials say.

As these screening efforts unfold, the government has confined hundreds of thousands of refugees to overcrowded camps with an uncertain timetable for returning home. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has promised to resettle most of the refugees by the end of the year, as part of the process of reconstructing the island’s war-torn north and reviving its economy.

Until then, most are stuck behind the barbed wire of the camps.

The hardships underscore the government’s delicate task of providing humanitarian aid amid a security blanket, and the potential for tensions among the ethnic Tamils who were the main victims of Asia’s longest-running civil war, caught in the crossfire of fighting in the north and east of the island nation.

"The people are willing to give the government some time," says Suresh Bartlett, national director in Sri Lanka for World Vision, an aid organization working in the camps. "But if it goes on," he warns, "there could be agitation."

With the help of foreign relief agencies, the Sri Lankan government has taken in about 300,000 refugees in 41 camps. The government is scrambling to put up tents, organize schools and provide food to accommodate the tens of thousands who have arrived after the Tamil Tigers were defeated.

The government’s treatment of civilians caught in the fighting has attracted international scrutiny. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toured the camps over the weekend, although his call for free access for aid deliveries was rejected by the government.

The U.N.’s top human-rights official, Navi Pillay, on Tuesday called for an independent investigation into alleged atrocities committed by both sides.

A military spokesman, Brigadier V.U.B. Nanayakkara, says the military’s offensive was a humanitarian mission. "We rescued 295,000 people," he said. "It was a humanitarian operation to liberate these zones."

The war for a separate Tamil state, which was fought off-and-on beginning in 1983, ended early last week in a bloody showdown in which much of the senior Tiger leadership was killed. The body of Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran was discovered last week, say army officials, near a mangrove forest, contrary to earlier statements that he had died trying to escape in an ambulance. A bullet had peeled away part of his head.

Since vanquishing the Tigers, the government has gone on a public-relations offensive seeking to win over the ethnic Tamils. At a news conference Tuesday in Vavuniya, a defector lambasted the Tigers and their chief for how little was gained from the decades of violence that killed an estimated 100,000 people.

"Thirty years of war and we got nothing. Zero," said Col. Karuna Amman, who helped to identify his former commander’s body.

The U.N. has estimated that 7,000 civilians have been killed from the beginning of the year. Some died in the final days of the conflict, leaving widows and orphaned children, say residents of refugee camps around Vavuniya.

A refugee who identified herself as Ranjithan said she lost her husband in an artillery barrage that struck their bunker near Mullaitivu. In the same tent, two children, both toddlers, lost their father in a May 12 blast, according to another refugee. Three days later, their mother died the same way, he said.

Asked where the bombs came from, a woman frowned. "The government," she whispered.

Brig. Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, says the army refrained from using heavy weapons in the civilian safe zone. "When you are on the receiving end, you can never tell where the bombs are coming from," he said.

Those who straggled into the safety of the camps had an additional hurdle to clear: the security screen. The army says it was screening out those who were trained by the Tamil Tigers and carried guns. But the stories of those who were sent to rehabilitation camps suggest blurry lines are being drawn between rebel and civilian.

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