Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Hidden from the World..

Innocent captives of terror

by Dan McDougall, News of the World, May 24, 2009

"This is a prison camp, a Nazi-like detention camp that evokes the worst fears of humanity."

Vavuniya Tamil IDP detention center May 24 2009

THEY squat in a circle, grinding their tiny hands nervously into the mud behind the six foot high barbed wire fence that imprisons them.

And their little eyes stare wide open in fear at what lies on the other side.

Around the infants and their families in the grim surroundings of the Pulmoddai refugee camp in war-torn northern Sri Lanka, the soldiers sit, each one ten yards apart, their AK47 assault rifles trained at the 6,000 terrified refugees huddled inside.

This the terrifying aftermath of Asia's longest civil war - and the News of the World is the first newspaper in the world to witness the human suffering in the controversial camps where Tamil survivors are trapped.

Speaking to us in the belief we were aid workers, the official in charge of the Pulmoddai compound claimed the Tamil women and children were being "held" for their own safety.

"We are protecting these people," he claimed. "This is why there are so many soldiers here. There might be Tamil Tigers in there and we cannot just let them come and go. They have water and shelter and they are happy to be free of the war."

But later a charity worker gave us a very different view: "The children, their mothers, their grandmothers, they can't get out. They are trapped behind barbed wire with guns trained on them, innocent children.

"This is a prison camp, a Nazi-like detention camp that evokes the worst fears of humanity."

And if the children of this bloody war are not being held in camps, they are in a different kind of hell-in orphanages scattered across their war-torn land with no mother or father to comfort them.


Children whose memories will be scarred forever by what they witnessed.

Like 12-year-old Theverajah Kajenthini who told us: "I saw my mother's body. She was on fire after the shelling and died of burns to her face and neck. Her head was black, it was the last I saw of her."

To get to the terrifying fallout of the 26-year conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers took a 13-hour, 400-mile drive from the west coast capital Colombo along dangerous roads and through more than a dozen heavily militarised checkpoints and cordons-once having to hide in the back of our minivan.

At every stage of our journey the Sri Lankan Military-which has effectively created a border cutting off the north of the island from foreigners-brandished their weapons to try to intimidate us and stop us seeing what they don't want YOU to see.

For here, in the north-east of the South Asian island, is a scene light years away from the pristine tea plantations and golden sandy beaches in the south and west of the island that attract more than 100,000 British tourists a year.

To British honeymooners Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise; to British businessmen it is source of clothing for high street stores like M&S, Next and Gap.

But for the past three decades the former British colony has been gripped by a deadly war that has bitterly split the South Asian nation in two and killed 100,000 people.

It erupted in 1983 after the demands of the minority Tamils for a homeland of their own separate from the Sinhalese were refused. Last week it finally came to a violent and bloody end in the north of the country. And since January, an estimated 7,000 civilians, many of them children, have died in the crossfire at the hands of both sides.

But now the end of the conflict has brought new and terrible suffering for the Tamil people left behind.

Brought down by ship from the former front line 50 miles to the north, the Pulmoddai refugees before us are effectively-as the charity worker said-prisoners of war facing disease and malnutrition.

Further north many tens of thousands more share the same fate in dozens of similar camps.

As the fighting engulfed them, they suffered shelling and aerial bombing as well as torture, rape, mass arrest and now prolonged detention.

In the Pulmoddai camp, children wave from behind the barbed wire fence.

A child no more than two-years-old toddles naked towards the razor wire imprisoning her and her family. Terrified of retribution, parents pull the child away. Many of the refugees are dressed only in rags and tattered clothing. Chicken pox and skin diseases are sweeping through the camp and hepatitis is a growing problem because of poor sanitation.

Around the perimeter, women gather at hastily-constructed water pumps but only one is functioning properly.

Our attempts to interview the detainees through the wire were met with angry threats of imprisonment and deportation by guards.

Two Tamil women shouted "help us" to our translator as we were pushed away from the perimeter fence. Sickened by the violent attempts to stop our access, the charity worker who spoke to us spat out the truth of what was happening here.

He works for ZOA-a non-governmental organisation which helps set up wells and food distribution systems in some of the world's worst trouble spots. He told us the creation of the camp and dozens like it was causing grave concern.

"The Sri Lankan government have said these poor people could be in these camps for another two years, there is a fine line between refugee camps and prisons here," he said. A construction worker, who helped the Sri Lankan army build the camp, told us later at a secret location that locals had effectively been forced to help the army create a prison for the refugees.

"We pass them on the road and they look out at us through the barbed wire. They are absolutely helpless," he said. "They have escaped a war which they had no part in and now they are prisoners.

"The children are the saddest sight of all. They sit by the fence waving at the cars that pass, usually military vehicles."

The UN confirmed this week that as many as 300,000 Tamil refugees are now jammed into the camps dubbed "welfare villages". Western journalists have been banned from going near them.

The Sri Lankan government argues that the last remaining Tamil Tiger fighters remain in the camps and pose a danger to the public. Neil Buhne, the United Nations' top official in Sri Lanka, said he believed there would be no more than a couple of hundred at most.

And James Ross, the legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch, accused the Sri Lankan Government of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people. He said: "The government appears to view all Tamils as presumptive Tiger supporters."

Meanwhile, along the road from the Pulmoddai camp, is the sound of hammering and the clink of metal. Thousands more tents are being made to house refugees from the north.

And Sri Lankan soldiers are hammering huge wooden stakes into the ground to create another razor wire perimeter fence. Away from the camps, things are little better. We travel 30 miles down the Bay of Bengal coast to Uppuveli which has the most beautiful beach on Sri Lanka's east coast according to the guidebooks.

As the sun sets it certainly looks like an island paradise-a curve of white sand with palm trees and deep emerald water.

If you drive through the jungle in the east, you can see herds of wild elephants crossing the road while long-tailed monkeys watch from the trees. At night, fireflies hang by the roadside. This is the part Sri Lanka tourists know. But no-one comes here any more.

The beach is littered with sewage and hotels are boarded up. As deadly battles have gripped the jungles around the town only foreign aid workers and soldiers pass through.

Growling and menacing packs of dogs roam the empty stretches of sand. The jungle, long burned by government soldiers trying to clear the roads of hiding places for Tamil Tiger guerrillas, is a twisted charred wasteland.

Where tourists once strolled, hundreds of soldiers nervously search for remaining Tamil Tigers who might launch the kind of suicide attacks for which they were renowned.

But nearby there is a human timebomb of misery ticking away.

In the Sivananda Thaovanam Orphanage more than 100 children huddle together, their eyes betraying tragedies they could not easily put into words.

Each youngster had his or her own story, but they all had one thing in common, the death of their parents in war. Four year-old Mohanapriya's eyes lit up as she spoke about her mother and father, telling us how she is waiting for them to come and take her home.

"She is too young to understand they are gone," said one of the orphan directors. "What can we say to her?"

The orphanage looks tattered and shabby, like its inhabitants. The room that serves as their bedroom-a communal hall with peeling paint and a few lockers with broken locks-overflows with secondhand clothes and toys that have seen better days.

The only bed there was piled high with mats, sheets and pillows.

But despite its woeful lack of facilities, Sivananda Thapovanam has been a safe haven for children for more than four years. They are content with the little they receive here-but the real unhapiness is deep within.

Theverajah Kajenthini wiped a tear from her eye as she recounted how she lost her mother, her sister and her aunt when a Sri Lankan government shell hit their home. Several months later her father was executed by "unknown forces"-accused of being a Tamil Tiger sympathiser.

"I don't understand what has happened to me," she said. "Like other children in here I don't talk about the past. I am old enough to know my parents are gone but the younger children laugh and play and tell us their mum and dads are coming back.

"Many of the children in my village became orphans during the fighting. I can't deny what happened to me.

Across the north of Sri Lanka hundreds of such orphanages house the true legacy of Sri Lanka's civil war. With no funding for rehabilitation or counselling the children's fates seem to be sealed at a tragically young age.

"The camps to the north of here are full of children like me I am told," said 11-year-old Mahetevan Suganya.

"At least I have my friends here in the orphanage and I can walk in the garden and play with my toys.

"The director here tells us all we are fortunate to be here and to be protected from the war." Staring out from a picture on the wall are the dead eyes of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, killed last week in a final stand against The Sri Lankan military.

At the height of his power, Prabhakaran ruled as a virtual dictator over a shadow state of hundreds of thousands of people in northern Sri Lanka with its own flag, police and court system.

The Sri Lankan President announced to the world last week that it had finished off the last of the rebels in the northern war zone and killed Prabhakaran and his top deputies.

To his followers, Prabhakaran was the steadfast heart of the battle to establish a breakaway state for the ethnic Tamil minority. But his many detractors saw him as the brutal ruler of a suicide cult who repeatedly sabotaged peace deals in pursuit of power.

In more than a quarter-century of civil war, his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam perfected the science of suicide bombings, assassinated top politicians including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and fought the Sri Lankan government to a near-standstill.

Prabhakaran's guerrilla force was armed with heavy artillery, a rudimentary air wing that once bombed Colombo's international airport, and a squad of suicide attackers.


Its navy consisted of small attack craft, suicide boats laden with explosives, crude submarines and huge smuggling ships. The Tamil Tiger rebels reportedly earned as much as £188 million a year from arms and drug smuggling, fake charities and donations from Tamil expatriates.

Prabhakaran rarely appeared in public, preferring to communicate via radio addresses delivered every November.

Tamil Tiger troops, some forcibly recruited when they were children, saw Prabhakaran as their unquestioned leader.

He ordered them to abstain from sex, cut personal ties and carry glass vials of cyanide on a necklace so they could kill themselves upon capture.

Now, as our pictures show, the Tamil women and children they fought for are left to carry on the suffering as virtual prisoners of the government forces who defeated them.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Yolanda Foster said the photographs show how vulnerable children have been left imprisoned in these camps.

After looking at our evidence of the human disaster unfolding in Sri Lanka, she said: "Thousands of children who fled the combat zone are severely traumatised and in need of vital humanitarian assistance and support.

"As long as humanitarian access to the camps is restricted, children remain very vulnerable.

"Life imprisoned in camps is not what the many traumatised and malnourished children need.

"They need support and protection. Humanitarian agencies must be given immediate access or thousands of children's lives remain in jeopardy."

PICTURES: Robin Hammond