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Sri Lanka’s internment camps for Tamils: experience of an inmate

[TamilNet, Monday, 5 October 2009 12:23 No Comment]

South Asia has never witnessed such a large scale, state-organized crime as one committed on Eezham Tamils by the government of Sri Lanka. Perhaps the world has never witnessed hitherto that such a crime of internment camps for civilians could be initiated collectively by all the powers of the world and the UN, and could be left like this without anyone being able to do anything about it. A civilian woman who was a captive in the Zone 3 of the internment camp of Menik Farm for four months, and managed to come out by ‘other means’ a month ago, writes on her experience in the camp – an indelible shame for the so-called civilised world.

Eyewitness Report – Full text

Menik Farm is divided into five zone camps. Each zone has a Tamil ‘figure head’ from the administrative service receiving orders from Sinhala civil servants who work closely with the military. The Tamil ‘figure head’ and all other interned staff take orders from the military.

On occasional visits by dignitaries, she writes, “Then a van with video cameras drove by and started throwing bread and some “sambol” at the inmates crowded behind the office. The inmates rushed competing for the bread while the amused cameramen were videoing. Inmates on many occasions have told me of seeing similar scenes being videoed.”

Gun and stick (long baton rods) wielding military control the inmates at all times.

Reporting misbehaviour of the military could be fatal, she writes: I asked one senior government employee inmate if this misconduct by the military ought to be reported. I was told that if I attempt anything like that I will “disappear.”

The wind during June/July was extreme and it was like living permanently in a sandstorm. Everyone was covered with sand that will come raining down every few minutes. There were a couple of heavy downpours soon after we arrived in the camp. Some of the camps in the lower lying areas were flooded.

The toilets are only less than five meters from my tent and the smell was strong when the emptying of the toilet pits is not carried out in time, which is always the case. When there is water shortage, which is frequent, concern about how one is going to use the toilet becomes the most serious problem of the day, surpassing the problems of food, health and other major issues.

I have never seen flies and mosquitoes in such numbers in my life. While eating, one hand is fully occupied with chasing the flies; a practice that children will not adopt thus consuming food contaminated by flies that come straight from the toilets very nearby.

The campsites are zigzagged with open canals that take away the dirty water. This is the best breeding area for the mosquitoes and the water in the canal is always covered with a thick layer of mosquitoes lying low during the daytime ready for swamping once the sun sets.

The very first commercial event in the camp after our arrival was the bank. Banking advertisements were the most prolific in the camp and everyone knew that they were all competing for the savings of the war refugees now interned in terrible conditions.

Other sellers came along and curiously all of these sellers were Sinhalese except for an odd Muslim seller.

Most of the items brought in for sale were those that could be sold with big profit like ice-cream, soda, and biscuits. Basic needs, such as sun hats for children were not sold. Anyone who visited the camp could see very young children roaming around without a hat, one cause for the frequent illness suffered by the children. It was a profit driven retailing with no concern for the people and the inmates understood this clearly.

The UNHCR staff inquired the Tamil officers about vegetables and they were told that Tamil officers have been instructed by the Vavuniya District Secretariat that no vegetables are to be given to inmates. This remained the case until I left the camp. The people with regular salaries could afford to buy the vegetables, which were very expensive and the others, the majority just survived with the dry rations.

Majority of the children including infants did not have milk (powder) except an occasional packet handed out by some charity. Once a father of a seven-month-old baby came begging for some sugar to put in the plain tea (black tea) to be given to his seven month old baby because the mother did not have enough breast milk and the baby was hungry. Plain tea had become the regular diet for this baby.

Each zone has two or three OPD clinics of varying sizes. Most of the doctors attending the clinics are non-Tamil speakers.

The queues are very long and the doctors work at break neck speed. I have seen a doctor writing a prescription to a 12-year-old boy without finding out what is wrong with the boy.

Once an educated mother told me that she visited the doctor for treatment for her baby as well as for herself. The medicine dispensers mixed up the medicines and gave the baby what should have been given to the mother.

People young and old suddenly dying after a few days of fever is a common occurrence.

The camp zones are divided by barbed wire and crossing from one zone to the other to see relatives or friends is a punishable crime. The writer described a few instances she witnessed and says, “It is these people suffering intense anxieties about friends and families who were brutally stopped by the military from entering adjacent camps to checkout if the missing loved one has arrived there. The number of times inmates were brutally beaten when caught attempting to cross is countless.”

Once I saw an old man just squatting on the zone-3 side of the gravel road watching through the barbed wire the goings on in zone-2. A military person walking past called the old man on to the road and started beating him. It was clear to me that the beating on this occasion was purely for sadistic pleasure. I have seen a few more instances of sadistic actions by the military.

The military also separated families by taking away people suspected of LTTE membership at Omanthai where all refugees were first recorded. Trying to locate the whereabouts of such members was the most traumatic.

If there was any doubt that the Menik Farm camps are anything other than prisons the procedure in place for outside visitors to meet inmates will clear away any doubt.

The actual meeting area is divided by iron sheets up to the chest and above it are wooden grills similar to what one would find in a prison. The visitors and inmates can talk through this grill and also exchange items over the grill. One is permitted only around 20 minutes maximum to talk because there will be hundreds more waiting. Even within this short time one is often interrupted by the military demanding the national identity card of the visitor and details about the relationship to the inmate.

If an inmate dies in a hospital outside camp to which the inmate was transferred earlier, there is a small chance he or she will get something resembling a funeral.

A three and a half year old boy died near my tent and his aunts who brought him up were not allowed to even go and see the dead body of the boy.

Any death within the camp has no chance of a funeral. The body is just removed by the military and nothing is heard of after that.

There were these people whom the camp inmates called ‘CIDs”. They were apparently senior LTTE members who had been taken away and then “released” into the camp to be with their families.

We also heard another well-known female LTTE member coming in Sri Lankan military uniform to the camps and identifying LTTE members in the camp.

Those who arrived in May described the experience of the last few days of the war in great detail. Many said that during the last few days they never walked erect due to fear of being hit by shelling. When making the move to exit the area they said that they had to walk over dead bodies.

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