Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Surviving in the Safe Zone

by Peter Ratnadurai, April 6, 2009

What are the main problems faced by the civilians?

Artillery attacks and air raids; shortage of food and medicine; and lack of shelter.

What is being done about it?

Attacks by the Sri Lankan military are ongoing. Nothing can be done about it other that defeating them on the battle front, or exerting international pressure to stop the shelling.

Civilian struggles in Vanni

Around 80, 000 families, more than 200, 00 people, all of them Tamils are temporarily settled in the Sri Lankan government declared “Safe-Zone”, a half-a-mile wide strip of sandy beach stretching less than ten miles in length.

Atrocities taking place in this zone have gone unreported in the international press, thanks to a blanket ban imposed on aid workers and journalist by the Sinhala state. Only the Tamil media, led by the English language website TamilNet.com, has dared to defy official orders.

Here we provide details in short Q&A format

Who declared the “Safe-Zone”?

Unilateral declaration by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL).

Is the region appropriate for such large number of people?

No. Previously home to only a handful of fishing hamlets, it has no infrastructure.

Water and Sanitation?

Number of toilets and wells were in single digit.

Could civilians have refused to move into the area?

No. Everyone outside the zone were declared “enemy combatants” by the Sinhala sate.

Did anyone stay out?

International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) operated the PTK Hospital. It was repeatedly shelled. Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, told Britain’s Sky News that the hospital was a “legitimate target” as it was operating outside of the government declared zone.

Who is looking after the civilians?

Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) and a number of local charities are attending to daily needs. Tamileelam Administrative Service (TAS) has deployed unarmed cadres to help with construction of temporary shelters.

How about international aid agencies?

None. All have been banned by the GoSL.

Even the UNHCR?

Yes, even the UNHCR. The “Safe-Zone” is the only part of the world with high number of displaced civilians unattended by UNHCR.

Has LTTE blocked aid agencies or UN?

No. LTTE has written several letters to all prominent aid agencies and UN, even pleading with them not to abandon the Tamil people.

How about Safety?

UNHCR and a number of international aid organisations are present in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, where they are declared targets.

What are the main problems faced by the civilians?

Artillery attacks and air raids; shortage of food and medicine; and lack of shelter.

What is being done about it?

Attacks by the Sri Lankan military are ongoing. Nothing can be done about it other that defeating them on the battle front, or exerting international pressure to stop the shelling.

Food, medicine and shelter?

TAS is building small shelters using Palmyra leaves. All shelter material are banned by the GoSL. WFP is delivering rice, dhal and some medicine by ship, but nowhere near enough for the number of people in the area.

How about the shortfall in food and medicine?

LTTE’s Sea Tigers have managed to “smuggle” small supplies of essential items. Rice porridge ‘kanchie’ is given twice daily to all adults. A protein rich version of it, ‘pyintham-kanchie’, is given to children. Families with babies under a year-old are given milk powder.

No food shortage then?

Minimal food is “smuggled” to prevent death by starvation. People have not ate vegetables for months. Vitamin deficiency diseases may become more common.

Why don’t Sea Tigers transport more?

They are having to work under great difficulties. Both Indian and Sri Lankan navies have increased patrols. Tamil Nadu police is actively following individuals purchasing large quantities of food or medicine.

Are there civilian casualties in the “Safe-Zone”?

Yes. Around 100 people are killed and 200 are injured every day.

Why?

GoSL wants force them out of LTTE-administered areas. It hopes to limit choices to death and moving out.

What happens to injured people?

They are taken to two makeshift medical facilities in the zone. Most minor injuries become major complication because of shortage of essential medicine. Serious cases are transported by the ICRC to Trincomalee.

Does the LTTE have positions inside the “Safe-Zone”?

No. If it did, they would have been filmed by UAVs. Defence Ministry releases detailed videos from outside the zone. Same would have been done if there were positions inside. LTTE has requested international monitors to visit the zone to verify.

Is the LTTE holding civilians by force as “human shield”?

No. Given the ratio of civilians to cadres, that would be a physical impossibility.

How about civilians who say they were held by force?

People in Sinhala army detention camps and militarised hospitals are limited in what they can say. Taking their words without context is the height of naivete.

Why are some media quoting them then?

As it suits their agenda. Readers should put themselves in the shoes of the civilians.

Why would UN make that claim as well?

UN should send monitors into the region. With no presence in the “Safe-Zone” UN has no credible way of assessing people’s wishes. UN appears to want to do something. But, it has been banned from the region by the GoSL. Only thing left for it to do is blame the LTTE.