Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent | May 21, 2009
THE International Committee of the Red Cross has suspended operations in Sri Lanka’s desperately strained refugee camps after the Government restricted access to as many as 300,000 displaced people, prompting warnings of a humanitarian disaster.
Unicef yesterday claimed Sri Lanka was hosting the world’s most populous refugee camp in the northern city of Vavuniya, eclipsing even those camps in Africa’s war-torn Darfur region.
“I know, based on the size of the biggest camps in Darfur, there’s a camp in Vavuniya now that’s the most populous in the world,” Unicef spokesman James Elder told The Australian.
Up to 130,000 people – many sick or wounded – are believed to be squeezed into the appropriately named Manik Camp, after as many as 80,000 people streamed out of the northern battlefields in the last days of the conflict.
Mr Elder estimated that one in four children under five in the more than 30 internment camps believed to be operating in Sri Lanka’s north was malnourished and said “that number is going to greatly worsen” with the flood of new arrivals.
There are now fears of serious disease outbreaks within the camp, including dysentery and cholera, as a result of inadequate water and sanitation facilities.
“People have paid a high price for this peace,” he said. “Thousands have been killed, including large numbers of children.”
President Mahina Rajapakse declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on Tuesday in a nationally televised address and called for all Sri Lankans to unite behind the Government in its attempts to mend the fractured nation.
The Government claims it has slain the LTTE’s notorious and elusive leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and military footage released yesterday showed triumphant troops parading the stretchered body of a man believed to be the Tiger commander through captured territory to rapturous cheers.
Tamil media operating outside of Sri Lanka deny Prabhakaran has been killed.
As much of the country celebrated the army’s victory with an impromptu national holiday yesterday, aid groups predicted the civilian death toll from the final months of Asia’s longest-running civil war would reach 10,000.
The Sinhalese-dominated Government has been accused of deliberately underestimating the number of Tamils trapped in the narrow conflict zone between Tiger rebels and advancing government troops in order to reduce the final official death toll.
Analysts suggest the lack of reliable population figures for the Vanni region – the former stronghold of the now vanquished LTTE – has aided the Government in its obfuscation.
“There’s going to be more than 10,000 dead (since the beginning of the year),” said an aid worker. “(In the last days of the war) this was the worst place on the planet.”
Aid groups admit they have lost the battle on verification in the face of a government determined to keep the real picture from emerging. Three doctors capable of providing a true picture of the casualties are in custody on charges of providing false information to the international media.
US-based Physicians for Human Rights said it had been told the Sri Lankan Government was detaining the doctors “incommunicado, possibly in retaliation for adhering to their ethical obligation to protect the lives of their patients in all circumstances”.
Thuraroraja Varatharajah, Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi and V. Shanmugarajah continued to treat sick and wounded civilians in the conflict zone, even as their hospitals and makeshift clinics were bombarded from both sides.
Much of the information that has emerged from the front lines has come from the three doctors.
But nightmare accounts of the final days and weeks of the offensive have also leaked out of the government-run camps – of civilians fleeing crossfire through mined lagoons and exposed battlefields.
One Tamil woman, Tharshini, who attempted to flee the battle zone amid intense fighting one night last week, was forced to rescue her drowning two-week-old daughter from a lagoon after her husband, who was walking beside her carrying the baby on his head, was killed by crossfire.
Tharshini waded the last 30m with her baby, Anandi, on her own and on the other side was taken by government troops. Now in the main internment camp she struggles to come to terms with her loss.
“He was a good man,” she said. “Now we have nothing, and my husband is dead.”
Another woman said many people drowned crossing the lagoon, which was pockmarked with deep craters from where it had been bombed. That woman lost her 10-year-old daughter in the crossing.