Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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UN Plays Politics with Jaffna Displaced

by J.S. Tissainayagam, Northeastern Monthly, March 2006

Over 5,000 families displaced in December & January from Jaffna to the Vanni receiving little help except from TRO

As violence intensified in the north soon after the presidential election last November, all eyes were turned on the claymore mines and assassinations of military personnel taking place there, and on how they were affecting the peace process.

The media however did refer to the other side of the coin – the desperate lives of the people of Jaffna, especially those who were identified with the LTTE in some way. Fear eventually forced these people to take the momentous decision of abandoning their homes and moving to the Wanni, terrified though they were of the military checkpoints as well as the random army patrols they would encounter on the way.

S. Ramani (names of all displaced persons featured in this article are altered because they fear repercussions by the military in case they have to return to government-controlled areas) lives today among a group of 58 families displaced from Jaffna. Housed at the rear of Kilinochchi Central College, these families are either occupying an unused school building, or live in tents pitched in the open to eke out a miserable existence.

“I am from a Mahaveerar family that fought for the LTTE. We lived in Chullipuram. When violence intensified in Jaffna we got to know of the notorious white van on the prowl for us because of our Tiger connections. So we hid. After the killing of another family identified with LTTE in Manipay, we decided to leave Jaffna for the Wanni,” Ramani said.

Realising the dangers ahead, her family had told soldiers at the checkpoints they were on their way to Mannar. Ramani managed to arrive in Kilinochchi and had been living as a displaced person for 30 days when The Northeastern Monthly met her in mid-February.

On Kayts Island, the EPDP paramilitaries were searching assiduously for those they called “LTTE sympathisers.” One family identified as such was M. Sathis.’ “They came a couple of times at night and banged on the door but we managed to hide. But we knew we could not do this for ever. So we decided to leave,” he said.

His family came with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Since the exodus had just begun when Sathis made his exit, things were fairly smooth at the checkpoints and the fact they travelled without baggage did not arouse much suspicion.

“At Allaipiddy however, the army asked why we were leaving. They said they were occupying Jaffna to protect people like us and tried to persuade us from leaving. But they did not harass us in any way,” Sathis said.

“In December 2005 we had around 34 displaced families in Kilinochchi. By mid-January it had increased to around 200 and on 22 January 2006 there were 2542 families in the district,” says E. Ganeshapillai, head, NGO Consortium, Kilinochchi.

Ganeshapillai’s indignation however is not due to the conduct of the security forces in Jaffna that forced the displacement of the 2000 odd families. He is more outraged at the tardiness of the multitude of INGOs that work in Kilinochchi, which had refused to render any substantial assistance to him or the LTTE to cope with the humanitarian crisis they were faced with.

The INGOs were approached by the NGO Consortium as the trickle of displaced humanity began to grow in volume and Kilinochchi awoke to the fact that it was on the horns of a dilemma. However, the INGOs had responded by stating they could not render any immediate assistance because their mandate did not allow them to feed or house refugees fleeing from fear of retaliation by the armed forces in the government-controlled areas.

“For weeks after the initial displacement INGOs were saying they were awaiting sanction from their respective headquarters in Colombo to release funds. This was while there were over 5000 families displaced all over the Wanni,” said Ganeshapillai.

There was only one thing left for the Tigers to do: they approached the TRO, which is a registered INGO working exclusively in the Tamil areas. “In the absence of INGO responses to the emergency, the TRO was forced to fill the gap,” said Lawrence Christy who is director of the TRO’s Planning Division.

The TRO, which has expanded its operations in the northeast after the tsunami, especially in the Tiger-controlled areas, has streamlined its work by going to the grassroots. It has for instance divided Kilinochchi District into five sectors. (Mullaitivu District is divided into six.) These sectors do not correspond to the conventional administrative divisions.

“The TRO gave Rs.150000 worth of cadjan and poles to build temporary shelters in my sector alone,” said S. Thanabalasingham, who is TRO’s representative at the Kilinochchi District Relief and Rehabilitation Organisation (KDRRO), an implemen ting partner of TRO in the district.

The Tamil Eelam Administrative Service was also mobilised to provide relief, especially to those families which had found shelter among relatives and friends, but did not have the means of obtaining food. Dry rations are also provided to the displaced by the World Food Programme but channelled through the government.

Meanwhile, INGOs which had asked for time to obtain permission from their respective headquarters in Colombo resorted to another tactic to delay in engaging with the Jaffna displaced. They said they wanted to assess the needs of the displaced before providing relief assistance. “This is the first time I have heard of INGOs requiring a clarification of mandates from their headquarters, or having to do need assessments to cater to displaced people who are running for their lives,” said Ganeshapillai.

He said that when the INGOs saw the TRO trying its best to grapple with the need and provide as best as it might, a few offers of relief were made. However, they were not relief that was earmarked for the Jaffna displaced but leftovers from other projects.

“We asked for milk food from UNICEF, but got only quilts. In fact an INGO gave us coconut scrapers left over from a tsunami rehabilitation project. Now the Jaffna displaced have coconut scrapers, but no coconut!” laughed Ganeshapillai.

“INGOs working in Sri Lanka have a political approach rather than a humanitarian approach to their work,” said a senior officer working with TRO on the condition of anonymity.

Soon after the volume of displaced began to increase, a meeting was called at the LTTE’s Planning and Development Secretariat (PDS) chaired by UNHCR. “At the meeting INGOs did not want to be seen as helping the displaced because it could be interpreted by the state they were backing the Tigers. So we told them to take a balanced approach to the problem,” said the TRO official.

Humanitarian organisations after the meeting at the PDS were agreeable to the Office of the Commissioner of Humanitarian Agencies (OCHA), which is an international organisation that is part of the United Nations system dealing with humanitarian problems, to undertake the needs assessment. This was because organisations which were dealing with relief and rehabilitation assistance would then not have to duplicate work. But despite the urgency of the situation and the report having been commissioned in early 2006, it had not been forwarded to the INGOs in Kilinochchi even by 1 March 2006 when this article is being written.

“This report was done by the second week of February but there does not appear to be any urgency on the part of OCHA to give us this report,” said sources from Oxfam that did not wish to be identified.

The similar sentiment was echoed by World Vision, which said no report had been sent to them despite OCHA being commissioned to compile one. “Since there is a humanitarian crisis we could not go on waiting. So we got the sanction of the Kilinochchi government agent and are distributing relief items,” said World Vision sources that were also hesitant to be identified.

“Since some of the displaced said they wanted to do their own cooking we gave some left over cooking utensils. But no systematic relief programme has yet been mounted,” said the Oxfam sources.

OCHA conceded a needs survey had been done but refused to divulge what had been its contents or why the data had not been communicated to the INGOs. Information provided by OCHA was by way of ‘background information’ and the source would only speak on condition of anonymity. The official spokesperson of OCHA in Colombo could not be contacted by The Northeastern Monthly.

Among the displaced at the camp behind the Kilinochchi Central College, S. Arunthathi from Kottadi who had moved out of home to the Wanni complained that her family had had no assistance from any of the INGOs except TRO. “We are asking that we be allowed to resettle but nothing has happened yet,” she complained.

Even the families able to bring modest amounts of money (it had to be modest not only because they are not affluent people but because large sums of money would have attracted attention of the military at the checkpoints) when they came to Kilinochchi find most if not all of it has run out. So they have to either work or obtain relief assistance from the TRO, the LTTE administration, or through the government.

“Most of the families which moved out of Jaffna did so either when harassment became unbearable or there was a well-founded fear they would be harmed. Now they want to remain in the Wanni rather than return to where they came from,” the TRO official said.

He said that as of now his organisation was providing emergency relief such as food and temporary shelter but had to find permanent housing for them and livelihoods. “We cannot allow them to go on living in camps because the cramped conditions of camp life are not a healthy environment. But the volume of the displacement has stretched even our resources to the limit,” said the TRO official.

While shelter and livelihoods remain an acute problem, so does education. “Government schools in Kilinochchi do not allow children to enrol. Almost none of the children at the camp go to school,” complained Ramani.

The authorities admit to the problem. The reason however is bureaucracy. An integral part of the curriculum of students in Year Five and upwards is project work. The system of continuous assessments demands that children are periodically assessed and the accumulated mark submitted for the government exam. No student is admitted in the middle or higher forms in secondary schools without officially authorised documentation where marks for project work are duly reflected.

“The problem is that none of these students could officially leave their schools in Jaffna because it would have aroused suspicion. But without an official transfer of marks and school leaving certificates, no school in Kilinochchi is prepared to enrol them,” said the TRO official.

The TRO realises that unless measures are taken to address this problem there will be grave repercussions visiting the Tamil population of the northeast. On the one hand Tamils facing intimidation in the government-controlled areas would be desirous of moving out for their security, but the dilemma of not being able to reenrol their children in schools at their place of refuge would place a damper on any move to resettle in the Tiger-controlled ones.

There is no doubt that the challenges facing the displaced, the INGOs and local NGOs in providing relief and rehabilitation are manifold. But they pale in comparison to the attitude of UN organisations like OCHA that view the provision of humanitarian relief politically. Unless they become more proactive and view their role in more neutral terms, not only are the displaced from Jaffna going to be at the receiving end of a lot of pain, but the element of trust in providing humanitarian assistance that could serve as a confidence building measure would be hard to come by.

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