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‘Rebellion or mass suicide only outcome if this continues’

[Tamil Guardian, Monday, 24 August 2009 19:22 No Comment]

This is an eyewitness report from someone who had personal exposure to the suffering of Tamils in the Manik Farm concentration camp.

With all the people from Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar districts crammed into the camps in Vavuniya, space is a premium. Rather than being ‘internally displaced persons’ these people are in reality ‘internally displaced prisoners’.

The camps are large open prisons where suspicion is encouraged, all rights denied and human rights abuses occur in the open, with no indication that any attempts are being made to change the circumstances in which these people are constrained.

The Manik Farm complex is the second largest city on the island of Sri Lanka, after the capital Colombo. Locally the story is that more camps are to be built, and more people are still being transported into the camps from outside.

The estimated 280,000 inmates of Manik Farm camp – and there are no accurate figures of how many people are in each camp or who they are – are housed in six zones, three on either side of a central passage. The names of the people detained are not recorded, and thus there is no accountability for the people detained.

The zones are named after Tamil politicians of the past – Kadirgamar, Arunachalam, Ramanathan, etc. One zone remains unnamed as the name of a sixth Tamil politician deemed suitable enough could not be found.

Each zone is self-contained and all inmates are prevented from leaving their zone or interacting with relatives in another zone unless they have the permission of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence.

Inside the zones, 2-3 families are housed in each temporary dwelling. This is ten to fifteen individuals, many of them adults, crammed into a small tent. There is absolutely no privacy and solitude is only a dream.

Food and water

Visitors to the camps get simple meals of rice and dhal or rice and beetroot. The residents get even less, and at times are lucky if they get one meal a day. At other times, they get three meals, leading to a complete lack of certainty about what sustenance the people will have at any given time.

Certainly no effort is made to provide nutritious or balanced meals. Some people are attempting to grow their own plants outside their tents, but these disappear quickly and are not sufficient for their needs.

But if the food is restricted, the water is atrocious. There is never enough water for people to drink and many have been forced to drink from the bathing pools. The lack of sanitation however means that these are basically breading grounds for bacteria and this is one of the major causes of the rampant spread of diseases through the camps. Malnutrition, chicken pox, diarrhoea, malaria, respiratory infections and skin diseases are common, spreading rapidly through the tight swarm of people. Deaths are common.

Toilets consist of large open pits with planks across to squat on and removal of waste is nonexistent. Children have been known to fall into the toilet pits – the scene from the movie ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ has new significance in these camps. Many of these children die, for there is no way out of these pits, unlike in the movie.

Suspicion and fear

The Tamils are suspicious of each other. Divides between Tamils from various regions, religion or castes are being encouraged so as to break down the sense of Tamil unity. People are distrustful of everyone they don’t know, as everyone is a potential whistle-blower, passing on true – or false – information in order to advance their cause, or because they don’t like an individual.

Anyone attempting to cross from one camp to another – for example to see relatives – is shot. One example was a mother and father who attempted to see their children who were being held in another zone. They were shot and the bodies allowed to lie where they lay, exposed to the children looking on from the neighbouring zone.

The dominant feeling in the camp is one of despair.

Rampant rape

Rape is common in the camps, and is carried out by the soldiers ‘guarding’ the camps. With toilets at the periphery, women who go to use the facilities are easily dragged away and raped.

Women and girls identified as having had a connection with the Liberation Tigers are held separately at Ponmedu (the men and boys are held at the Tamil Mahavidyalayam in Chettikulam, also separated from the rest of the population). Every night a bus arrives at Ponmedu and about ten women are taken out and returned in a ruffled state the next day.

This is done quite openly, and is common knowledge among those in the camps and those who have had access.

Lack of access

The International Red Cross has been asked to reduce their operations in Sri Lanka while non-governmental organisations are still not allowed in to camps.

The only people allowed into the camps are local religious organisations and aid groups from what are considered ‘friendly countries’ – countries that militarily or economically supported the Sri Lankan government in its war against the Liberation Tigers. For example, visitors from India have been allowed inside the camps.

Religious groups are encouraged to visit the camps, but they are often ill equipped to deal with the practicalities of large scale displacement and the psychological impacts of this on the people.

The only local doctors working in the camps are from the Independent Medical Practitioners Association. Accommodation is provided in tents for clinics, but there is no privacy for individual patients. All patients have organic medical problems and mental illnesses have been reported, but no records of this are available.

There is no shortage of medicines, donated by agencies or drug firms, but often these include drugs not commonly used, which can do harm or cause death if used inappropriately. There is no pharmacy so patients are reliant on what drugs the local doctors can provide.

There are no facilities in the local hospital. An ill patient who needed surgery was delayed for six hours in the camp and then disappeared, with no news of his progress brought back to the people in the camp.

Locals feel the camps are likely to continue indefinitely with foreign financial help – they were certainly built with international aid. But they also warn that if the situation continues, the people are bound to either rebel or kill themselves.

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