BBC News, Menik Farm, northern Sri Lanka
Rapidly built up for the Tamil refugee influx last spring, Menik Farm has pylons, banks, even cash machines – and thousands upon thousands of tents in the cleared arid lands west of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka.
Since my earlier visit in April, the camp has swollen to cover some 10 zones, the number of camp-dwellers has ballooned to a quarter of a million, while over 20,000 have been resettled or more informally released, the government says.
This was the BBC’s first chance to view all this infrastructure close-up.
In Zone 2, apparently the most overcrowded, a network of drainage ditches has been built which the government says will prevent flooding in the coming monsoon season.
Shops and little stalls line the straight roads. The stalls are a rare chance for camp-dwellers to earn a bit of cash. The shops were run by the government, we were told.
Even though, according to those we met, many people cannot afford to shop in them, the facilities help give an air of normality to parts of the camp.
A government intensely sensitive to outside criticism or suggestions, and wary of any outsider’s intentions in wanting to visit the camps, was now giving the BBC admittance, alongside the UK’s Development Minister, Mike Foster. That in itself seemed like notable progress.
And yet, just five minutes of conversation with the camp-dwellers was deeply distressing.
Starting by talking to us through our car-window, women, one after the other, piled on tales of hopelessness in the Tamil language.
Each wanted her turn at the microphone to speak out. There was barely time for us to ask questions or ask where their families were.
One said that after being displaced 15 times by the civil war in three years, and being rescued by the army, she was now sharing a tent with 24 people.
“I don’t know how to live like this,” she said, simply. “Please send us to a good place, or to our homes.”
There seemed to be a widespread assumption that as outsiders we could somehow send them home. It was a cry of despair.
“There is nothing to do,” the same woman lamented.
“We are falling sick of doing nothing. Even the children who study don’t have books, pens, pencils.”
“There is no water to drink. There is no water to bathe. We are going to die here.”
Everyone criticised the food provisions. Dal, rice, flour and sugar did not amount to proper meals, they said.
They also said they lacked pots and pans to cook, even tumblers to drink from.
Another woman said that by staying in these tents people were falling prey to many diseases.
“It’s really hot here. It’s really packed. Please send us to our homes,” she told us.
“See that water? It’s from the river. Can a man bathe in that water? It’s the water in which the buffaloes bathe.”
An elderly woman insisted we come with her to her tent. She showed us her pitifully thin husband, who cowered on the ground in an improvised lean-to.
“There is no room for all seven of us in the tent; no place to sleep,” she cried.
“He is sick. He was discharged from the hospital and now he stays here. I am taking him from hospital to hospital, but even in the hospitals there’s no room.”
We watched people filling their water containers from a tap in a plastic tank. There were irritable altercations.
A man volunteering to monitor the water distribution said people were fighting for limited rations amounting to about 20 litres per family for three days.
“It’s not enough at all,” he said, with severe understatement, adding that sometimes the supply lorries did not deliver the quantities they were supposed to, forcing people to look for water elsewhere.
Earlier the visiting British minister had seen positive things – for instance, mine clearance to the north-west.
Mr Foster said he thought the Sri Lankan government was “desperately keen” to get people back to these communities for monsoon rice-planting.
All the more reason to let people out, at least to stay with host families, he said.
But the authorities are sticking to their message that these refugees, young and old, have to be screened for possible links to the defeated Tamil Tigers. Tens of thousands have yet to be vetted.
Furthermore, people cannot just go back to areas from which landmines had not been cleared, according to Northern Province Governor Maj Gen G A Chandrasiri, who was until recently in charge of Menik Farm.
“The government is doing the best that the government can do,” he said.
But by the dirt track in the camp, a refugee disagreed.
“They are not taking this issue seriously,” he said.
And, despite the trenches, they fear the approaching monsoon will bring water pouring into the tents.
Stop transferring IDPs from Vavuniyaa to camps in other areas – Bishop urges govt.
Rev. Duleep de Chickera, Anglican Bishop of Colombo has urged the Government that if IDPs said to be released from Vavuniyaa are in fact being transferred to camps in different regions, this is misleading and must stop. Reports of the lack of co-ordination amongst State Authorities are disappointing, and all those responsible for implementing this decision should be required to ensure co-ordination, compassion and speed.
The full text of a statement issued by Bishop Rev. Duleep Chickera on Wednesday follows:-
“The Government’s decision to release persons in the camps to relatives after adequate security screening was well received when first announced. Many welcomed this initiative. There have however, subsequently been conflicting reports in the Media about its implementation which require immediate attention and clarification. If the decision has been put on hold it must be reactivated. If the response of relatives has been slow, more time and wider publicity should be given. If persons said to be released are in fact being transferred to camps in different regions, this is misleading and must stop. Reports of the lack of co-ordination amongst State Authorities are disappointing, and all those responsible for implementing this decision should be required to ensure co-ordination, compassion and speed.”
“Such a course of action will confirm the Government’s position that these Sri Lankans crossed over to liberation at the invitation of their Government and that they are neither prisoners nor detainees. It will also recognize that no citizen of this country can or should be expected to endure the conditions in camps for too long. It will also widen the scope of current budgets and ensure better conditions, specially shelter and nourishment for those who remain. The anticipated rain is an added factor that calls for responsible action with speed.”
“The decision to release, should however be clearly seen as an interim measure. The much more urgent task is to expedite the process of resettlement. Once the ‘home areas” of the Displaced are cleared of mines and the required infrastructure built, persons displaced, whether in the camps or with relatives, should be resettled in their original homes.”
“I finally urge the Government to provide the Media with access to areas being de-mined and reconstructed, (subject to their safety and security precautions) and to also make regular public updates on this work. This will in turn provide information to all Sri Lankans, whether displaced or not, on the progress being made in this regard. In doing so the Government will demonstrate transparency in its management of the crisis and State Ministries and Officials will quite rightly be held accountable by the people.”