North East Takes a Battering

By Dharisha Bastians and Easwaran Rutnam, January 9, 2005

People displaced by the tsunami in Tiger-controlled areas have been treated to a once in a lifetime experience. Sea Tiger Commander, Col. Soosai is said to be playing a big role in relief operations and often stops by at camps to have lunch with the refugees.  At one such luncheon, the Sea Tiger Chief remarked - "our people have been used to eating red rice, but now we will have to get them used to eating samba," alluding to the fact that so many paddy fields in the area had been completely destroyed by the oceanic onslaught on December 26.

Vaharai, Batticaloa (courtesy eelavision.com)

Reacting to a presidential directive that all aid and relief efforts for tsunami affected people will be coordinated by the military, Soosai said that the Tamil people would not accept the handover of the management of tsunami welfare centres in the government controlled areas in the northeast to the army.

Tamilnet reported that the Sea Tiger Chief who held a conference at the Puththukattu junction on Thursday (6) said that foreign troops have arrived in Sri Lanka, adding that the government was intefering with the management of relief centres in a bid to distract the attention of the international community.

According to Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation estimates, 500,000 people have been displaced by the sea invasion in the north and east. The TRO figures include Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara and Mannar. Across the region, 380 relief centres have been set up to address the needs of a community devastated by 20 years of war and now, a natural disaster.  Amid allegations that government aid is not flowing through to the north and east, TRO estimates that it would cost upto US$ 2 million for initial relief efforts.

The organisation says that since the total population in the north and east is about 2.5 million, the tsunami devastation has affected about 30% of the region's people.

Problems on the ground

At a media briefing on Wednesday, January 5, Executive Director, TRO, K.P. Regi said that they were running into problems with the Special Task Force and the military when transporting relief supplies to the north and east.  Regi said that in Trincomalee, with the military handling supplies going into the refugee camps, people in the area were facing problems.  "Usually when such problems crop up we contact somebody in the government or Mr. Harim Peiris and the matter is sorted out, but can we be doing this each and every time a lorry passes through?" Regi told reporters at the briefing.

Even as late as Monday, January 3, Rev. Sister Ambrosine still searched through the rubble of what used to be Holy Family Convent, Mullaitivu. She had been searching for over a week; first for bodies of students or possible survivors and by last week for any valuables the sea may have left behind. Sister Ambrosine was the principal of the convent.

According to the nun, the students who survived the tsunami would have to be accomodated in other schools in the area which have remained intact.  "We are not sure yet what is to be done," she said.  In Mullaitivu, 1622 deaths were reported from the tsunami, while 2431 are still said to be missing.  According to the TRO, the missing in the areas will be declared dead unless some information surfaces within the next week or so.

TNA MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam said the Mullaitivu District Secretariat was also completely destroyed in the tsunami devastation.  "All the records that were in the secretariat were destroyed so as a result we have no idea about the numbers of people resident in the area.  So to give a percentage of the population of Mullaitivu killed or affected by the tsunami wil be very difficult," he told The Sunday Leader.

In the same area, the Mullaitivu branch office of the state-owned Bank of Ceylon too was completely wiped out by the wave.  "It's like all signs of government presence in this area has been destroyed," one member of the LTTE in the area said.

Further north at Point Pedro, entire fishing villages along the coast had been devastated.  Sri Lanka Navy sentry points too had been broken down by the ferocious wave.  However, damage to bigger buildings in the area was minimal.

LTTE in the forefront

LTTE cadres, together with the TRO officials are said to be spearheading relief and rehabilitation efforts currently underway.  TNA MP Sivalingam Gajendran who just returned from a tour in the east of the island last week said that up to 1000 LTTE cadres were engaged in relief operations, including burying the dead, providing food, shelter and clothing.

To streamline relief efforts in the short term, the LTTE has decided to set up camps throughout the affected areas and construct temporary huts and tents 400 metres away from the coast.  According to reports from the area, several such camps will be set up at Pallai, one of the last Tiger strongholds before Jaffna.

The LTTE will request donors for tents which will then be used as temporary housing for displaced people.

Of the areas worst affected, the eastern coast is possibly worst off with entire towns and villages wiped out by the massive wave.  In Ampara and Batticaloa alone, 14,794 people were killed by the tsunami.  An estimated 14 schools have been damaged in Ampara, resulting in thousands of students being at a loose end when the new school term starts tomorrow (Jan. 10).

According Gajendran, roads and bridges will also need massive reconstruction and the TNA parliamentarian has called on the international community to provide the LTTE with equipment and materials to commence the rebuilding process, saying that the Tigers themselves had the capacity to go about this construction work.

Oceanic delicacies taboo for VIPs

When Executive Director, UNICEF Carol Bellamy called on LTTE Political Wing Leader S.P. Tamilselvan last week, she was denied the usual seafood treats the Tigers provide when they host international representatives in their de facto capital, Kilinochchi.

Apologising for the meat-only fare, Tamilselvan informed Bellamy that they were under strict instructions from LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan not to serve seafood until the threat of contamination from the tsunami devastation was eliminated.

The lack of delicacies such as prawns and cuttlefish on the menu would no doubt have been a disappointment for the UNICEF chief since VIP guests to Kilinochchi have come to expect extraordinary seafood dishes when they are hosted by the Tigers.

Finger pointing over Jaffna torching incident

There was a lot of finger pointing last week after a school in the north being used as a welfare center came under attack.  A temporary shelter made of wood was burnt to the ground at the camp located at Kudathanai in a government-controlled area in Vadamarachchi late last Saturday (Jan. 1) night creating tension and fear in the minds of the already affected displaced families.

When The Sunday Leader visited the location last week, displaced families who were in the camp as well as the LTTE pointed fingers at the army for the attack.

According to the inmates of the welfare center, the incident took place after they refused to accept aid from the army who have a military camp situated in close proximity to the school.

They say around 12 soldiers who were angered at the refusal allegedly surrounded the school and assaulted an LTTE cadre who was at the camp as well as two others.

"Some of them were loading their guns while the LTTE cadre was being assaulted" said one inmate.

"We screamed and the soldiers ran away after which we ran towards the beach which is a few meters away from the school and sought refuge somewhere else," he added.  He said when the inmates returned the next morning they found a temporary shelter situated in the school premises and the chairs as well as some of their belongings burnt to the ground.

An LTTE cadre identified as Karuna who was distributing lunch to the displaced families relocated to a nearby church told The Sunday Leader that the army had begun to target civilians because they were receiving food from the LTTE.

Meanwhile, Colonel Jayasundara from the Sri Lanka Army's 115th Brigade, that is located close to the school that came under attack, denied the army had a hand in the incident, saying the LTTE is trying to turn the people against the military.  He told The Sunday Leader that the people have been forced by the LTTE to make up stories against the army.

According to him, a LTTE cadre had obstructed the army from giving food supplies to the camp inmates by blocking the distribution vehicle with a bicycle.  "In an attempt to remove the bicycle, the army may have assaulted the LTTE cadre, but they never surrounded the camp or set fire to the tent," Colonel Jayasundara said.

He also noted that the government servant who is posted at the church now sheltering the displaced families is afraid to take any supplies from the army.  He says the army was to donate 10 temporary tents to the church but the government servant refused to accept it saying he needed time to consider.

"We have nothing against the people but the LTTE wants to increase its strength by turning the people against us," Jayasundara said.

Meanwhile when The Sunday Leader was speaking to the colonel, the LTTE truck with Karuna that had completed distributing food to the displaced families located at the church sped past the army camp, but not before pausing to stare at the soldiers on guard.

An angry Jayasundara said that the innocent civilians at the church are the ones ultimately suffering because of the actions of the terrorist group. 

Meanwhile the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission is inquiring into the attack on the school.  SLMM Spokesperson, Helen Olatsdoftir told The Sunday Leader that the situation was presently calm and that the monitors are trying to gather the facts behind the incident as there were no eye witnesses.

The Sunday Leader

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Posted January 11, 2005