Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Grief and Despondency in Sri Lanka's Camps

by A writer in Sri Lanka, Reuters AlertNet blog, June 9, 2009

In the last months of the Sri Lankan conflict her daughter, two sons and husband were killed. One son is still alive but he had been moved from the hospital. She doesn't know where he is or if he was ok, and she's not allowed to go and find him...

The camps I saw are just the small ones. If the military and their resources are being overwhelmed here, with less then 8,000 displaced people in all, there is no imagining what the larger camp in Vavuniya is like.

 

Internally displaced people in a government-run camp in northern Sri Lanka/<br>Photo taken by author

Internally displaced people in a government-run camp in northern Sri Lanka/
Photo taken by author

She stood in the door frame of a former clothing factory in northern Sri Lanka. A tiny little woman with long, slightly grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. In her hand she held a small plastic photo album. She showed it to everyone who passed. There was no way I could understand what she said in Tamil but as I looked at the photos of three children, I understood the tone. It was one of absolute grief.

Her story was slowly revealed through a translator. In the last months of the Sri Lankan conflict her daughter, two sons and husband were killed. One son is still alive but he had been moved from the hospital. She doesn't know where he is or if he was ok, and she's not allowed to go and find him.

The army guard in the clothing factory says this woman is depressed. Maybe. But really, she is just human.

And in the government-run camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) scattered around northern Sri Lanka, there are thousands of stories like hers.

Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans were displaced across the island due to the country's 25-year-long conflict between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland. The military declared victory over the rebels last month but tens of thousands of civilians who were until recently trapped between troops and rebels in the final war zone in the northeast of the island are now living in the camps.

The camps are largely closed to the outside world. Only a few aid agencies are allowed in and even then, the groups regularly face the risk of being thrown out. But I was able to enter two.

I visited the Sahanagama Welfare Centre and the Kanijaveli Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya Welfare Centre, both near Pulmoddai. I was also able to gain access to the local hospital satellite site set up in an old factory.

What I saw was bad. Out of the two camps only one looked like it might reach Sphere minimum humanitarian standards - providing basic human needs. But just barely.

In one camp, Vidyalaya Welfare Centre, there is one toilet to roughly every 190 IDPs - 20 toilets for the 4000 plus held there.

A pharmacist and IDP from the northern city of Jaffna voices serious concerns. She says it is only a matter of time before diseases like typhoid spread unchecked through the camp. She also worries about the heat. It is so hot between 8 am and 5 pm that everyone is forced out of their tents. Water is hard to access during this time, putting the IDPs in a no-win situation.

But as I said, this is the good camp. There are five roughly built kitchens. The IDPs are arranged in working parties to cook and serve the meals. There is room for the children to run around and play. They also had books to study and makeshift classrooms to use.

The 2300 IDPs housed just down the road at the Sahanagama Welfare Centre are not so lucky. Housed in a small school, these Tamils overflow into hallways and sleep in the school courtyard under sheets of plastic.

Children use the small space not covered by sleeping adults to play, but there is barely any room. When it's mealtime and people line up for the food, the free space is reduced even further. Food is prepared off site by a local charity and shipped in. The school smells of human waste and sweat.

In one small classroom there are over 15 families - 60 people in all. Lying amongst all these people is a little boy wrapped in white fabric with his arms pinned to his side on a thin mat and green leaves. I'm told he has chicken pox. The leaves are a natural remedy.

There is a new-born baby sleeping barely a metre away. The families are worried the chicken pox might spread, with fatal consequences. But what choice do they have? There is nowhere to quarantine him.

The worst of all is the satellite site of the local hospital, housed in the former clothing factory, where I met the grieving widow. An elderly naked woman is dying on the floor, her mouth and eyes covered in flies. When I ask why the old woman is given no help, the military guard simply shrug their shoulders.

Inside this large hollow factory, the smell of too many people hits me like a wall. The injured and the IDPs are separated by a screen of balsam wood. The floors walls and beds are dirty.

While walking amongst the people, I meet two children lying on a bed - a brother and a sister. In the midst of the army's final push to conquer the Tamil Tigers their parents were killed.

The little girl lost four fingers on her right hand. All she has left is a thumb. As the war raged a priest grabbed these two children and pushed them into the arms of a stranger, a woman who brought the siblings to safety and stayed with them through surgery. She is still with the two when I meet them, but she isn't their mother. When these children are allowed to leave the camps, maybe in six months, a year or even two, their future will be uncertain.

The camps I saw are just the small ones. If the military and their resources are being overwhelmed here, with less then 8,000 displaced people in all, there is no imagining what the larger camp in Vavuniya is like. There, the charities and the government are trying to deal with an estimated more than 180,000 IDPs.

In all the places I visited the healthy children ran up to me and grabbed my arms. Despite everything they had seen, these children could smile, laugh and have hope. But with locks keeping them in the camps and the Western world out, hope is the one thing I struggle to give in return.