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From killing fields to 'welfare villages'

This 'welfare centre' looks more like a prison with an armed soldier with the gun at the ready (inset) Udaya Nanayakkara, Jeevan Thiagarajah and Rishad Bathiudeen

By R. Wijewardena

"Desperate and unacceptable," "concentration camps," "depopulation" - the words used to describe the conditions endured by civilians in the north are genuinely shocking. Behind the statements and sound bytes however, the reality on the ground in the north and east of the country remains fluid and extremely complex.

As many as 300,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the violence in the Wanni - which accounts for the vast majority of the population of the Mullaithivu and Killinochchi Districts.

In total almost 2% of the country's entire population has been rendered homeless over the past few months, and every day more of the wounded and displaced continue to stream out of the last pockets of land under LTTE control.

These IDPs, often entire communities, already traumatised by injuries and the loss of family members are moved by the security forces to extremely rudimentary government transit camps, and then taken to more permanent camps or 'welfare villages' where they face a future in limbo - not knowing if or when they will ever be able to return to their original homes.

The displaced people

Ultimately this amounts to a new generation of displacement - thousands more IDPs, condemned to spend an indeterminate length of time in the squalor of tent cities to join the hundreds of thousands of others already displaced by a life time of war.

A fear of angering the military and genuine lack of information has prevented NGOs from issuing statements regarding the number of civilians killed by the violence. However reports from the Wanni indicate that recent fighting has been particularly intense. A statement from the NGO MSF claimed the organisation has performed surgery on 300 patients with shrapnel wounds over the past few weeks, which the organisation feels is the "tip of the iceberg."

The humanitarian situation in the north is now of sufficient cause for international concern that UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon has issued a statement calling for the cessation of hostilities,

However with victory for the armed forces apparently imminent an immediate end to the violence is unlikely and the exodus out of the Wanni, the violence and civilian casualties are set to continue at least in the short term.

The ground situation

While the rights and wrongs of the conflict can be debated ad infinitum - what is beyond dispute is that the suffering of civilians affected by the conflict is an immediate cause for concern.

What is desperately required by the general public at present is a clearer sense of the conditions endured by the thousands of people - the majority of the population of Mullaithivu District, who currently find themselves homeless as a result of the violence.

Information on the condition of the thousands of civilians - perhaps as many as 200,000 - trapped in LTTE controlled areas and government designated 'safety zones' at close proximity to the conflict is severely restricted. Aid workers no longer have any access to civilians within the LTTE's shrinking enclave.

"We have no direct access to the conflict zone. Our information on the condition of civilians still trapped in 'safety zones' at close proximity to the fighting comes from the 30,000 IDPs who were recently resettled in Vavuniya, and these reports indicate that the situation is worse that we imagined," stated Anne Marie Loos of MSF.

Sleeping in the open

The thousands of civilians trapped inside these 'safety zones' are reportedly sleeping in the open - completely exposed to the elements. "There is shelling 24 hours a day," claimed Loos. Those not within the safety zones but deeper within LTTE controlled pockets endure even worse conditions- mistreated by the LTTE and constantly under fire from the security forces.

The LTTE has been accused by the army and human rights groups of holding civilians hostage and effectively using entire communities as human shields.

While the army is making an effort to evacuate civilians from the conflict zones MSF reports claim that civilian casualties even within the declared safety zones remain high, as a result of the high concentration of civilians within the zones.

Once moved out of the immediate conflict zones by the army IDPs must endure rudimentary transit camps where they are allowed no contact with the outside world. Conditions at these transit camps have been described by the Western press as essentially 'concentration camps.'

"Extreme and exaggerated"

But UN Spokesman Gordon Wise insisted that such descriptions were "extreme and exaggerated." The reality remains however that very few people are allowed into the camps and freedom of movement for the IDPs within them is non existent.

At the transit camps the IDPs are screened - and those suspected of links to the LTTE detained - while the remainder are transported to government controlled 'welfare villages.'

At the governments present showpiece welfare village at the Menik farms in Vavuniya 1000 acres of shrub has been cleared and residential and other facilities now sprawl across the horizon.

Welfare villages are far larger and much better equipped than transit camps, and UN agencies and the Red Cross enjoy regular access to the camps. The government is keen to point out that the new camp at Menik farms contains a broad - even bewildering range of facilities - post offices, schools and even banks.

Having visited the welfare centers in the north of the island UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs  John Holmes, expressed his broad satisfaction with conditions at the camps.

However even within welfare villages the IDPs' freedom of movement remains severely restricted. The government claims these restrictions are for the IDPs' own safety. However with their movements restricted and little prospect of returning to their homes or anything approaching a normal life in the near future it is hard to imagine that those now housed in the camps, while hailing from recently liberated parts of the country feel particularly liberated at present.

Military imperative

When questioned about the levels of violence and conditions of civilians in the Wanni UN Spokesman Gordon Wise was keen to point out that "the government has a legitimate interest in securing the nation's sovereignty."

Even the UN therefore is prepared to acknowledge that the government has the right to pursue a military solution to the conflict. However the government is bound by a number of international treaties, and the detention/ displacement of thousands is becoming a cause for international concern with the impending involvement of the UN Human Rights Commission, the Security Council, and possibly the US State Department.

International agencies have made it clear that ultimate responsibility for the well being of all the civilians in the north and east of the country lies with the government.

There is however a sound military imperative behind moving civilians away from the war zone. By resettling civilians away from the conflict the military can reduce civilian casualties, which provoke the wrath of the international community, and also prevent the LTTE hiding within the civilian population.

The guerilla campaign predicted by those who believe a military solution to the conflict cannot be final will struggle to materialise if the population among which the LTTE must move and hide to continue its struggle is confined to camps.

Restricted to camps

Where the military is concerned a Wanni with its civilians largely restricted to camps will be far easier to control, while infrastructure and the institutions of the state are restored.

Temporarily housing a large proportion of the population of Mullaithivu outside the district will therefore greatly facilitate both the military defeat of the LTTE, and the government's long term control of the area - making a lasting military victory a real possibility.

The price for this victory however will be paid by civilians who, despite the government's claims that it will begin re-settling them as soon as the situation allows , face no immediate prospect of return and can expect to linger in camps for years - hence the need for post offices and banks.

Long haul

What is currently going on in the north of the country therefore is a long term project and the welfare of the civilians housed in these camps/villages will continue to be a cause for concern long after hostilities have ended.

It may be years before de-mining work and infrastructure development activities reach a point that would allow refugees to return to their homes.

 Deprived of any real means of earning a livelihood these refugees will quite possibly remain wards of the state for years to come.

 The expense of adequately housing and feeding so many IDPs will inevitably be too much for the government to bear alone and for all its recent harassment of aid agencies it will be forced to reach some sort of accommodation with INGOs to secure the aid that will feed, clothe and shelter the displaced in the medium term.

Support of the international community

The need to work with NGOs and maintain the support of the international community should compel the government to ensure reasonable conditions for the IDPs.

However a number of questions regarding the future of the north's new cities of the displaced remain unanswered. Who will look after the IDPs' long term well being? When will resettlement begin? What will happen to land the people have left, and when will they be granted the freedom of movement that is the right of all Sri Lankan citizens?

Despite these unanswered question however the 35,000 or so IDPs now housed in government camps in Vavuniya and Mannar are the lucky ones, for those still trapped in close proximity to the fighting face a far less certain future and their survival is still in question.


Civilians not allowed to leave by LTTE

By Raisa Wickrematunge

Many civilians in the coastal areas are not given safe passage and allowed to cross to cleared areas by the LTTE while food items to the areas have not been transported since Wednesday (25).

Military Spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said that a total of 36,337 civilians had traversed to government controlled areas as of Friday (27).

He added that on Wednesday, a total of 431 civilians, of whom 386 were patients, were transported by boat to safety.

However, only 19 people had crossed over on Thursday (26). When asked the reason for the dramatic reduction of crossovers between the two days, Nanayakkara said that many of the civilians were in coastal areas, and that the LTTE was not allowing them to cross. He added that it was "not possible for the civilians to leave, as there is the lagoon on one side and the sea on the other." As a result, he said, some civilians were trapped in the coastal areas since the LTTE was not allowing them safe passage.

Meanwhile, the ICRC had not transported any food items since Wednesday.

ICRC Media Coordinator, Sarasi Wijeratne confirmed that on Wednesday the ICRC had escorted a consignment of food, in its role as a neutral intermediary.

"The boat contained food items such as dhal, flour, sugar and cooking oil," Wijeratne said, adding that they had not facilitated the movement of any civilians on Wednesday. The vessel left from Trincomalee and was bound for Puthumathalan, Wijeratne said.

Head of CHA speaks out

Jeevan Thiagarajah is Chairman, Institute for Human Rights, a Sri Lankan NGO and Executive Director, Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies. Thiagarajah has worked in the NGO sector in Sri Lanka since 1984, holding executive positions in several humanitarian and human rights organisations. In an interview with The Sunday Leader Thiagarajah spoke candidly of the disturbing humanitarian situation in the Wanni and its long term consequences. 

Q: In terms of numbers how many civilians are currently displaced as a result of the war? 

A: The entirety of the civilian population of Killinochchi, Mullaithivu, a few thousands from Mannar, Vavuniya North and Jaffna constitute the recently displaced.

They are joined by older IDPs, some dating back 20 years.  As of mid July 2008, the all-island figures for new IDPs totalled 211,852 displaced persons in welfare centres, with friends and relations, in rented accommodation and other places.

Q: For how long have they been displaced and do they have proper shelter and food?

A: Some have been displaced for almost 20 years, and many have been displaced multiple times. The Government of Sri Lanka with the support of the UN, INGOs and NGOs did take steps to resettle/relocate IDPs subject to the availability of land and funds for relocation and housing. The list of interventions included: Mine clearing, voluntary resettlement or relocation, relief and humanitarian measures including the provision of food, drinking water and sanitation, provision of internal, rural and farm roads, marketing facilities, nursery/primary schools, reconstruction of damaged infrastructure including schools, hospitals, roads, water supply schemes, markets etc.

Much of this was seen on a significant scale in the 2002-2004  period e.g. over 300,000 houses were damaged in the conflict in respect to the old IDPs. Of these, 120,000 families were resettled and a sum of Rs.25, 000 and food rations was being given for at least 15 months after permanent resettlement.

The numbers indicate a deficit in fully meeting all the old IDP shelter needs. This deficit has widened with additional destruction. UNICEF, UNDP Transition Programme contributed US$ 22 million over the period from 2004-2008 for livelihood assistance along with UNHCR. The WB and ADB have also chipped in, along with further contributions from NGOs. Many of these investments need to be re-incurred given the damage since then.

Q: How many are still trapped in the battle zone?

A: Unfortunately as has been the case on innumerable occasions in the past, we have been unable to agree on the demographic composition of the civilians. Extreme figures are bandied about. For those affected it is a vulgar display of our inability to engage in rational, credible, conversations. The numbers are sufficient to have attracted the attention of the US, the UK, EU, India, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and the UN to name a few! Equally important is the fact that GoSL supplies are being transported by the  ICRC via the sea to meet the essential needs of people in the conflict zone. Without these supplies the consequences for civilians would be dire.

Q: What steps have been initiated by organisations like yours to preserve the lives of civilians trapped as a result of the ongoing war?

A: There was one public statement which was picked up in Delhi and London but not in the Colombo press! We have also engaged in ceaseless non public conversations with all significant actors and interlocutors. We have even committed to physically go to the conflict areas if passage was facilitated. Some of our employees and their dependents are still trapped with the other civilians.

Q: Has there been great loss of civilian life in the last few weeks of fighting?  If so, what are we talking about in terms of numbers?

A: The numbers are estimated to be significant. We have our own estimates, but the best indicators are the injured being brought out and the nature of injuries, the visuals available, and the fact that ICRC was compelled to publicly warn of a significant human disaster, all of which point to the fact that the toll is high.

Q: After  President Mahinda Rajapakse announced safe passage for trapped civilians how many have been able to take advantage of this offer? 

A: Close on 33,000 have straggled out.

Q: What steps have been taken to meet and stabilise the needs of displaced civilians?

A: The effort to meet the needs of civilians is backed by a group drawn from the GoSL, UN and CHA. They support a regional committee based in Vavuniya. The first step has been to find transitionary accommodation in 12 centres. However many of these centres are schools and those housed in them will shortly have to be resettled elsewhere.

Food was initially delivered, but now cooked meals are supplied from within the centers - this is a significant logistical and financial challenge. Water and sanitation require  a significant focus. Given the cold nights and dry dusty days, respiratory illnesses are common.  The enumeration of those who have arrived, tabulating their needs, recording supplies and recognising the contributors on line is another vital task. Family reunification has begun.

The police are likely to issue IDs which should as a first step allow limited movement within the district. Ensuring the people in the centres do not remain idle will be the next challenge. Education for children and protection for the unusually large number of young mothers and women is another focus. The injured and accompanying family members will need support now and in post hospitalisation recuperation. A whole host of persons and agencies have worked tirelessly. Some working  from very early morning to the wee hours of the next day, every day!

Q: There are charges of 'aid pornography' taking place.  What are your comments?

A: The challenge of this level of intervention is to avoid the pit falls of 'aid pornography.'  This includes an insistence of steaming past Medawachchiya in brand new gas guzzling SUVs  and painting the names of donors on everything from refuse bins onwards.   INGOs sometimes make nationals in and out of government become silent spectators when  determining the future of IDPs and given their control of donor purse strings accusations of neo colonialism, or aid imperialism are inevitable. 

Q: What plans have been made for building for the future?

A: While the emergency needs are stabilisation and planning, understanding the hopes and aspirations of all the displaced is also a priority.  Task group type mechanisms should be driven by a desire to return people to their home districts at the first possible opportunity. This is an imperative, driven not least by the financial considerations in a globally difficult environment. Nationals overseas should also be encouraged to donate to the resettlement and rehabilitation of their  land and their people. The war may peter out, but the conflicts must not haunt us for long. This requires adroit leadership skills.

Serious constraints says Minister

People in the LTTE controlled areas will continue to get government assistance. Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister Rishad Bathiudeen in an interview with The Sunday Leader said the government was committed to assist the people who were still trapped in LTTE controlled areas. "The government has started to send essential items by sea. A few consignments have already reached the area. As a responsible government, we have a duty to assist the people in need. The people are not in a position to come as they are forcibly kept by the LTTE. Even then, the government has been sending items to LTTE controlled areas for a long time," he said. 

By Arthur Wamanan

Q: What are the immediate needs of the people who are in LTTE controlled areas?

A: The people are undergoing severe hardships. The most important of all is that they lack proper shelter. In addition they are in need of food and medicine. We as the government are sending food and medicines to these people who are suffering.

The other issue is that the Government Agents of Mullaithivu and Killinochchi are not there any more. We are doing our best with the existing government officials in the area.

We do not in anyway say that what we are doing is 100% enough for the people who are suffering. But, we are doing our maximum in assisting them and we will continue to do so.

Q: The government has started transporting essential items to Mullaithivu by sea. How long do you think this operation will continue?

A: The government has started to send essential items by sea. A few consignments have already reached the area. As a responsible government, we have a duty to assist the people in need. The people are not in a position to come as they are forcibly kept by the LTTE. Even then, the government has been sending items to LTTE controlled areas for a long time. We decided to transport the items by sea due to the problems on the land route due to landmines etc. We intend to continue to send essential items to the people.

Q: The government is in the process of constructing transitional relief villages for the people who have fled the LTTE areas and are in Vavuniya. What is the present stage of the project and when will it be completed?

A: The actual process is that the people come and hand themselves over to the military. They provide them with energy packets like glucose. Then, the Government Agent will take them and they will be provided with temporary shelter.

Now we are in the process of building transitional relief villages in Vavuniya. We have planned to build four villages out of which, one has been completed. The four villages have been named - Kadirgamar, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Ramanathan and Arunachalam. We have completed Kadirgamar village. There are 3,000 people already living there.

The reason for building these villages is to provide them with proper education, health etc. Other facilities will also be given to them in due course. The other three villages are being constructed and will be completed in the near future.

The people will be kept in these villages until the infrastructure in their own places are complete. These works will not take much time.

These things are done according to the directives of President Mahinda Rajapakse. He has directed us to treat them honourably till they are re-settled in their own villages and towns.

Q: Is the government facing any problems due to the drastic increase in the number of people fleeing LTTE controlled areas, as the fighting increases?

A: There have been no problems so far. We are continuing to carry out relief and resettlement work smoothly. We have planned our work. First we will resettle the people first in Mannar, then in Vavuniya, thereafter in Killinochchi and later in Mullaithivu.

Q: There are people who still need to be resettled in the east. Parliamentarian Basil Rajapakse during his visit to the east a few days ago said that 80% of the displaced in the east have been resettled. When will the rest be resettled?

A: Yes. There are people to be resettled in the east. They will be resettled during this year.

Q: It has been nearly 19 years since the Muslims were evicted from the north. When are they likely to be resettled?

A: The priority now is for those who have fled the LTTE controlled areas. We have to look into their issues and then move ahead accordingly. We will first resettle the Tamil people who had fled their homes and then resettle the Muslims.

The Muslims will not be forced to go back to their homes. They have been living outside their hometowns for 19 years and most of them have got used to the environment and have settled down. Therefore, we will resettle those who wish to go back.

But first, we have to look into the matters that need immediate attention, and that is the Wanni people.








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