x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tamil refugees pick up the pieces

UN secretary general asks for unfettered access to refugee camps after 300,000 people fled fighting.

MANIK FARM, SRI LANKA // With fellow Tamils huddled around him, A Sivalingam describes the stench from filthy latrines and water shortages that blight the lives of those who fled the brutal endgame to Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war. The retired engineer has endured Manik Farm, the sprawling home to some 220,000 displaced people, for five days since fleeing an army bombardment of his hometown, in Mulattivu, as Tamil Tiger rebels made their last stand.

"We had to leave because of the shelling," Mr Sivalingam, 63, said in an interview. "There were many people getting killed and injured. The bodies were everywhere, corpses all along the sides of the road." Sri Lankan officials claim to be doing everything within their power to help about 300,000 people who escaped fighting between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

But those behind the camp's barbed wire fences tell a different story, with Mr Sivalingam, along with UN aid chiefs, concerned that poor sanitation, tropical heat and heavy rains could spawn a disease outbreak. Bulldozers are rapidly levelling thick undergrowth to better accommodate the people. Some zones are already at double capacity and families are forced to share cramped tents with strangers.

For Navanasan Kunga, the worst fact about camp life is not knowing when she will be able to return her three children home to Mulattivu district and her husband can get back to work on the farm. "There are no facilities here, no light, no water - and we still do not know when we can leave," the 35-year-old said while sheltering from the midday sun under a makeshift canopy. The UN has called on the government to quickly separate civilians from LTTE militants, and remove mines and unexploded shells from the former battlefield so people can return home. During his inspection of the camp yesterday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on Colombo to "expedite the screening process" of refugees and grant his agencies and other aid groups unfettered access to the camp complex.

Officials had decorated parts of the camp with posters announcing a "warm welcome" to the secretary general - the first statesman to visit Sri Lanka after the end of one of the world's longest-running civil wars. Mr Ban said his trip, arranged after talks with Washington, London and Paris, brought a message from the international community that Colombo must "reach out" to the Tamil minority in the aftermath of a bloody conflict.

Human Rights Watch claimed that the Sri Lankan government's final assault on the LTTE saw Tamil communities indiscriminately shelled. While lamenting that "civilian casualties have been heavy", Mr Ban stopped short of backing calls for an international inquiry into the war crimes alleged to have been committed by government forces. He called for a "proper investigation" of crimes and other human rights violations, saying the issue would be debated in Geneva by the UN's Human Rights Council tomorrow.

Mr Ban's closed-door meetings with the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressed reconciliation between the predominantly Christian and Hindu Tamils, who make up 12.6 per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people, and the Sinhalese majority. Last week's victory served to reinforce a deep ethnic rivalry that stretches further back than 1948, when Tamils lost their favoured status as the colonial British rulers handed power to the Buddhist Sinhalese at independence.

Tamils suffered discrimination under successive Sinhalese governments, sparking political violence in the 1970s and a full-scale civil war from 1983, in which separatists used conventional tactics and suicide bombings in a war that claimed the lives of as many as 100,000. The Sri Lankan president has spoken of reconciliation and investment in the cash-strapped Tamil heartland but many members of the ethnic minority remain unconvinced of a bright political future.

"The military side may be over, but the political side has a long way to go," said Lynn Pascoe, the UN undersecretary general for political affairs, adding that the world body could assist with everything "from constitutional expertise to mediation efforts". Mr Ban has discussed a "devolution of power" that would see Tamils gain some form of autonomy, but Mr Rajapaksa, has ruled out taking advice from abroad and opted for "a solution that is our very own".

Back in the refugee camp, in northern Sri Lanka's Vavuniya district, displaced Tamils remain uncertain whether their president's "home-grown" solution will yield better prospects in education and employment. Uma Madeesven, has doubts about her government, saying officials took her brother from the camp last month on suspicion of links with the LTTE. "I have asked many times for information about him but they will not tell me anything," said the 26-year-old. "They say he was LTTE, but I know he was not involved."

For Mr Sivalingam, the simple joy of being allowed to leave the camp and reunite with his wife and family would be enough to inspire some confidence in the future of relations between Tamils and Sinhalese. "The people here just want to be able to take their families home," he said. "We are ordinary people. We want peace; we don't want to fight." @Email:jreinl@thenational.ae