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Monsoon misery for Sri Lanka’s weary war refugees

[AFP, Sunday, 23 August 2009 08:49 No Comment]

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Tamil civilians who lived through the vicious final battle of Sri Lanka’s separatist war are now locked in another struggle for survival with heavy rains bringing misery to the camps they call home.

Nearly 300,000 people displaced by the fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels are held in what the government calls "welfare villages" which are off-limits to independent media.

"This is inhuman. This is a living hell," pro-government Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said of the camps where recent pre-monsoon rains overwhelmed sewer systems and flooded tents.

"The rains earlier this month were freak showers," said Sithadthan. The heavy monsoon rains "will start in October and the conditions will only get worse. The government must give people the choice to leave the camps."

The United States, which led international criticism over civilian casualties in the final phase of Colombo’s offensive against the Tamil Tigers, has also been vocal in its concerns over the plight of the displaced survivors.

The United Nations said more than 7,000 civilians may have perished in the five months before the war ended in May.

"Involuntary confinement is especially a source of concern given the recent rains and given the coming of the monsoon season," said Eric Schwartz, the US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

"It makes it all the more important that release from confinement be an issue that friends of Sri Lanka continue to raise," he said in Washington on Wednesday.

Rains last week destroyed nearly 2,000 makeshift shelters at the Manik Farm resettlement complex in northern Sri Lanka.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said there was a danger of disease spreading in the camps with the onset of the monsoon and asked Colombo to end what the group insists is the illegal detention of civilians.

A 30-year-old woman interviewed by the rights watchdog described the impact of the rains on the shelter she shared with her infant son and other refugees.

"Within seconds, the water was pouring into our tents. … After a couple of minutes, everything was flooded. We lost all of our things. It was terrible. We were already frightened and this made it worse," she said.

"Some of the toilets are completely flooded. It looks like they are floating in water. The pits have collapsed and raw sewage is floating around with the storm water in a green and brown sludge," she said. "It smells disgusting."

Sri Lanka’s Resettlement Minister Rishard Bathurdeen blamed UN agencies for poorly constructed drainage systems that had been unable to cope with the rainfall.

Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe denied media reports of disease.

"There are no major health-related issues in the camps and all health centres are functioning at normal capacity," he said.

The bar on the media makes independent verification of the situation impossible.

"With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence," London-based Amnesty International said.

It noted that the inmates of the camps were not allowed to talk freely to aid workers or the occasional visitor allowed by the military under strict supervision.

Sri Lanka’s new army chief Jagath Jayasuriya told reporters last Thursday that the military was working overtime to clear landmines to allow swifter re-settlement of those in the camps.

[Full Coverage]

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