Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

A Lankan Lament

by PC Vinoj Kumar, Tehelka, August 1, 2009

No agency, including the UN, has accurate details about the total number of inmates in each camp. The government has refused to reveal details despite demands from various bodies. When asked about the alleged disappearances of Tamil youth from the camps, UN Spokesperson for Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss said, “We have asked the government to increase the level of transparency surrounding the screening process.” He admitted that the UN and other international organisations do not have access to camps’ central registries. Thus, Colombo is accountable only to itself for the life of Tamil inmates. Since the number of detainees in the camps is unknown, theoretically, Colombo can get away with any number of disappearances.

Do I know what it means / To stand in the queue as a mere 13 year old, / Collecting charity for my younger brother / and widowed and aching mother, / a wound in my stomach which hurts and oozes. / With no one to care for the pain / To live on, not knowing why or the reason or meaning of hope...”

THESE ARE the opening lines of a poem by Sumathy R, who worked as a volunteer for a few days in a Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka. She describes the travails of the destitute and the orphans living in army-controlled camps According to reports, about three lakh Tamils displaced from erstwhile LTTE-controlled areas by war are treated like prisoners in these camps in North Sri Lanka. “Hundreds of thousands of Tamils remain locked in camps almost entirely offlimits to journalists, human rights investigators and political leaders,” The New York Times reported on July 12 after meet some refugees in one of the camps.

Theoretically, Colombo can get away with any number of disappearances

MAKING A mockery of the international outrage on the rising deaths, disappearances, and malnourishment in the camps, Rajapaksa described the ‘welfare villages’, as the camps are known in Sri Lanka, as “the best” of their kind, in a recent interview to N Ram, Editor of The Hindu.

Only last month, the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Sarath N Silva, spoke with rare candour about the inhumane conditions he had witnessed in the camps. “It is an utter lie to say that there is only one race and no majority or minority in the country,” Silva had said. “I can’t explain the pathetic situation they (the Tamils) undergo.”

Colombo continues to deny the UN and other international aid agencies free access to the camps, saying it is identifying and separating LTTE cadres hiding among the refugees. The government has turned down appeals from human rights groups that the army make its screening process transparent.

Tamil politicians say that the refugees are gripped by fear because of this army operation targeting Tamil youth and middle-aged men. They say suspects are arbitrarily separated from their families and housed in special camps. Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told TEHELKA that about 10,000 persons are now in such camps. Jaffna MP MK Sivajilingam says relatives of the detainees are in great anguish since they don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones.

No agency, including the UN, has accurate details about the total number of inmates in each camp. The government has refused to reveal details despite demands from various bodies. When asked about the alleged disappearances of Tamil youth from the camps, UN Spokesperson for Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss said, “We have asked the government to increase the level of transparency surrounding the screening process.” He admitted that the UN and other international organisations do not have access to camps’ central registries. Thus, Colombo is accountable only to itself for the life of Tamil inmates. Since the number of detainees in the camps is unknown, theoretically, Colombo can get away with any number of disappearances.

Unhygienic conditions are posing major health problems in the camps. “There have been outbreaks of chicken pox, hepatitis and diarrhoea,” says Vinya Ariyaratne, executive director of Sarvodaya, a Lankan NGO working in the camps. He said about 20 percent of the children below the age of five, who number about 5,000, were malnourished.

“In one camp there are more than 40,000 people. The government is trying to decongest these camps by opening new ones,” Vinya told TEHELKA. Vinya said his organisation had no details about the allegedly high rates of deaths in the camps. However, The Times, London, has quoted senior international aid officials as saying that about 1,400 people were dying every week.

Weiss said that while the health front was under control, “There may well be more disease outbreaks if [the camp] systems become overwhelmed by rainfall and flooding,” adding that Sri Lanka had told the UN that a 180-day plan to return people to their homes will soon be implemented.

With western aid reducing sharply due to Colombo’s devil-may-care attitude on human rights issues, the Rajapaksa government has the daunting task of finding the resources to return the nearly three lakh refugees to their original habitations in the Wanni area of Sri Lanka – which has turned into a wasteland.

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vinoj@tehelka.com