Internally displaced persons: The new front of an old war in Sri Lanka
By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran
Since the defeat of the LTTE on 18th May'2009 at Nandikadal, the issue of the 300,000 ' Internally Displaced persons (IDPs)' has become the new front to fight an old war. People who have not been to the IDP camps in Chettikulam have been very vociferous in condemning the conditions and the very existence of these camps. Objective reports based on contextual realities by those who have visited these camps and talked to a cross section of the IDPs are dismissed as propaganda on behalf of the government. Other reports of those who visited these camps, but have highlighted problems that fit in with the agenda of those fighting in the new front are gobbled up with glee. The reports of those who have not visited these camps and are relying on second hand information and photographs, are accepted as the gospel truth. The desire to condemn and use the situation as an opportunity to continue the old Eelam agenda under a new guise is overwhelmingly obvious.
Internally displaced people (IDPs) sit in a makeshift classroom in the Zone 4 camp at Manik Farm in northern Sri Lanka August 19. 2009-Reuters pic
Many things, some minor and others major, that are wrong in these camps can be written about and photographed. But these do not represent the overall picture. These camps are temporary and the UN demands they be temporary. Tamils also want these camps to be temporary. The government has declared they would be temporary. However, the fact that a sincere and concerted effort is being made to remedy problems and improve conditions cannot be denied. It will be travesty of truth to deny these facts. The conditions in zone-4 camp – reported to be the worst- are remarkably better than in most Colombo slums! The fact that these IDPs have escaped hell, to reach a safe haven, if not heaven, should not be lost sight of.
The circumstances under which these IDPs arrived in Vavuniya - the trauma they had experienced during a brutal war (between the LTTE and its sworn enemy, the Government of Sri Lanka) and the cruelty they were subjected to by the LTTE (The self proclaimed sole representatives and liberators of the Tamils)- are being very conveniently ignored.
The IDPs arrived in Vavuniya in a state no human should ever be. I have seen them as they arrived at one transit camp in Vavuniya. They were able to smile even under extremely desperate circumstances, because they were relieved to be alive! Grand mothers were destined to look after their orphaned grandchildren. Aunts and uncles had to take responsibility for their orphaned nephews and nieces. They had no time to mourn their dead. They had to care for the injured and permanently maimed, while they themselves needed help. They had no hope for the morrow. They were destitute and benumbed.
They were haggard, malnourished and weak. Women were giving birth soon after their arrival in the transit camp. Mothers had no milk in their breasts to suckle new born infants. Many did not know where their children and other relatives were. Many had seen their children, partners, parents, relatives and fellow humans drown, succumb to their injuries or fall dead, while escaping. The misery I witnessed and heard cannot be easily described and have to be seen and heard to be appreciated.
They had to abandon their homes or see their homes destroyed. They had to abandon their villages, towns and occupations and move as the war front shifted, to be finally trapped at Nandikadal. They had to hide in bunkers to save themselves from the bullets and shells flying over them and falling among them. The bullets and shells were being fired by both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE. They had to live under flimsy plastic tents or under trees and fend for themselves.
They witnessed their kith and kin being killed and blown up. They saw dead and putrefying bodies around them. They saw fellow Tamils being killed by LTTE cadres. They had to hide their eleven and twelve year olds in camouflaged holes, to save them being conscripted by the LTTE. They had to keep their children for as long as two months in such holes and feed them there. They had to provide for their sanitary and toilet needs in these holes. Some saw their precious children die in these holes, succumbing to the prolonged confinement.
They had to force their young daughters to get married early and get pregnant to avoid conscription by the LTTE. They witnessed LTTE cadres force young pregnant girls jump from trees, to induce abortions (with the intention of qualifying them for conscription). They saw their young children placed in church premises for safety, being rounded up brutally by LTTE cadres as part of a desperate conscription drive.
They were short of food and clean drinking water. They saw the LTTE cadres burn food stocks while retreating. They were shot at by the LTTE cadres, when they tried to get the food being burned. They drank water from holes dug in the sea shores. These sea shores were also their toilets. They were victims of black marketing by LTTE cadres. They saw the same LTTE cadres trying to hawk a bottle of 'Horlicks', which they were previously selling at Rs. 2000/=, at Rs. 500/= (a special bargain!) in the final days of the war. They had to buy the food provided free by the Red Cross and the Sri Lankan government, from the LTTE.
They were shot at by LTTE cadres while trying to escape. They were also fearful of what awaited them in the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Most were surprised they were treated with kindness by the armed forces, when they managed to escape. Most escaped in the final stages of the war, out of desperation. They had to make a choice between certain death and a possible chance to live. They saw LTTE cadres escaping along with them. They had also encouraged LTTE cadres to escape with them. They witnessed piles of currency being incinerated by the LTTE. They also witnessed the LTTE handing over large sums of money to favoured individuals.
They had subsequently identified several LTTE cadres in the IDP camps to the Sri Lankan authorities and went to the extent of beating up several who had treated them badly while in the war zone. They were convinced there were several more LTTE cadres in their midst at the time of my last visit (July'09).
One gentleman in the IDP camp, who had lost two sons forcibly conscripted by the LTTE, whom I tried to console, with the story of how my mother and brother were killed by the IPKF, started sobbing in sympathy. He had known my late brother. Tears welled in my eyes.
The IDPs we spoke to had nothing to complain of the Sri Lankan armed forces, as they had moved ahead of the army, until trapped at Nandikadal. They were however vehement in asserting there was firing from both sides and they were caught in the middle. They definitely had no complaints about how they were treated by the armed forces and police after escaping. They appeared comfortable with the presence of soldiers and policemen in the camps, and went about their lives quite normally.
They were very resentful of the fact they had to pay a price for someone else's war. They regretted having permitted the LTTE to establish themselves in the Vanni and providing them food and shelter, when they were trapped by the IPKF and later chased out of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan armed forces. They were critical of the Jaffna Tamils, who had failed to provide them proper leadership. They were critical of the LTTE for marginalizing the educated Tamils. They want the educated Tamils to return and provide leadership.
The thoughtfulness of those administering these camps in allocating a separate area for the Brahmin priests and their families to reside in zone -4 camp, has to be appreciated. These Brahmin families seem to have adapted to the new circumstances quite well. I witnessed families going out for an evening walk in zone-4 camp at 5 pm, after a bath, in fresh clothes. The ladies were powdered up and were wearing their jewelry. These will not happen in a concentration camp!
I also spoke to a young mother (30 year old) who had six children of her own plus four of her sister's. Her sister and brother-in-law had been killed in the final days of the war. She was poor. Her husband was a labourer who had earned daily wages. She is able to feed her ten children because she is in the camp. Who would provide for her and her family, once they are sent out of the camp? There are thousands like her in these camps. Those who have collectively deposited Rs. 600 million in the camp banks are obviously a minority. The class disparities between the people in these camps will be quite visible to the discerning.
The fact that 54 NGOs and INGOs, including the UN agencies are working in these camps is unfortunately ignored by the international media. The fact that the UN is involved in the care of IDPs is also ignored. The fact that foreign diplomats visit these camps regularly is also being ignored. The fact that organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and certain international news agencies are not permitted to visit these camps because of GOSL suspicions about their intentions, does not negate the fact that these camps are under intense scrutiny. The GOSL is very aware of this scrutiny. The inmates in these camps also have among them leaders and persons who can speak out. I saw them making representations to the officials in charge.
The IDPs want to go back to their homes, villages and towns as soon as possible. However, they want to go back to homes, villages and towns with restored infra-structure and facilities. They want to go back to homes, villages and towns that are safe. They want to go back to homes, villages and towns, where they will have a livelihood. These can only be provided by the government of Sri Lanka with international support.
They also need support to look after their widows, orphans, injured and the maimed, for years to come. They need financial support to establish themselves. They need leadership and financial support to learn new trades. The disabled and maimed have to be rehabilitated and given the tools to live with dignity. These have to done by the combined efforts of the Sri Lankan government, the other peoples of Sri Lanka and the Diaspora.
The Tamil Diaspora is particularly responsible to make use of the opportunity that has unfortunately arisen, to take these people into the 21st century. The Tamil Diaspora funded the war that has affected these people. It is now the moral responsibility of the Tamil Diaspora to help these people resettle and prosper. Most IDPs do not have Diaspora relatives to help them. The Tamil Diaspora has to adopt them as their families.
Let us not force the government to release the IDP into a black hole. Let us not in our short sightedness, emotional state, vindictiveness or inhumanness throw these unfortunate people to the wolves. Let the GOSL restore the infra-structure and other facilities in the Vanni, as planned. Let the GOSL modernize the infra-structure. Let the GOSL lead the effort to care for the IDPs as long as necessary. Let the GOSL discharge its responsibilities towards these unfortunate citizens and through that process bring about national reconciliation. Let us Tamils encourage the government to meet the November-December'2009 deadline to re-settle most of these IDPs and lend a hand in the process.
The Tamil community in the north and east of Sri Lanka as a whole is in a perilous state. Their numbers are depleted through external and internal migrations, and deaths. They have a large number of orphans, widows, injured and maimed among them. A very large number in proportion to the population are in the IDP camps. Once thriving population centers are abandoned and destroyed to various extents. They do not have skilled administrators, teachers, health personnel, carpenters, plumbers, masons etc. The Skilled have to be brought in from the south to carry out reconstruction work. These are realities we have to accept. Tamils have to be aware of the long term consequences of what they say and do now. We have made our mistakes and paid a heavy price. We have also paid the price for the mistakes the GOSL has made over the years. The Tamils of the north and east cannot pay any price any more. Survival as a people has become paramount at this critical juncture. This essentially assumes primacy over other considerations.
The GOSL has to be also transparent and honest. It should do what it has promised. It must be seen to do what it has promised. The 13th amendment to the constitution should be implemented and the intention to do so unequivocally declared.
The APRC proposals should be put forward as soon as possible for enlightened public discussion. The government must fully back the proposals being put forward and canvass support for it actively. The government should cease manipulating Tamil politics and politicians, to convince the Tamils that its intentions are genuine. Let the Tamils make their choices, when they are ready to do so. The government should also appear to encourage the flowering of confidence and genuine grass roots democracy among the Tamils. There is a time to plant and a time to harvest.
There will not be a good harvest if there is a delay in planting. There will be of course no harvest if there is no planting! The government should not procrastinate on political solutions any longer. This will the Tamils hope that they have a place in Sri Lanka. These steps will forestall issues such as the IDPs becoming the new front of an old war. The battle has been won, but the war is yet going on in a different plane. Let us all act wisely.
(This article is based on the two visits made to the IDP camps in Vavuniya, in March and July'2009 as part of a Diaspora group. The others who were part of the second group were: Dr.Noel Nadesan (Australia), Mrs. Rajeswary Balasubramaniam (U.K), Manoranjan Selliah (Canada) and Rajaratnam Sivanathan (Australia). The IDPs met during the recent visit to the IDP camps were men and women, mostly middle aged or old, and married.)