Sri Lanka : Escapees’ accounts from Sri lanka’s war zone and internment camps
Writer’s Note :
The story below was filed end of last year 2009. It was published by Neues Deutschland in german and HanKyoReh21 in korean early of February in 2010, but no where in english. As the issue of ‘boat people’ from Sri Lanka “drifted” in oceans, diverted to the agenda of ‘human smuggling’ otherwise alerted by ‘Tamil Tigers on the board’, I post the story in english here hoping to attract more readers from english-speaking world.
Turning away their face from struggling asylum seekers, whose majority are Tamil ethnic, world community louds out ‘Tamil Tigers among them’. The international community have recognized that Tamil Tigers were defeated by Sri Lankan government forces, modeling the latter’s job as a successful case of ‘war on terror’, haven’t they? Why do they ‘hostage’ all those desperate lives then, having excuse of defeated Tigers, who should be anyway treated humanely according to the interanally recognized accord?
“It was inevitable…to save my life. The intention of the Army attack was to drive people into the Army hands”
In the evening of May 16th 2009, Karan (name changed, 60s) was one of some 250,000 Tamils on crossing over to the government side, from where the forces had kept shelling at where Karan had just left. “Inevitably, unwillingly, involuntarily”, Karan articulated as this writer repeatedly questioned if people came out to government side ‘unwillingly’, raising a criticism of ‘human shields’ by the rebel. “Tigers were not holding people as hostages, as human barriers, as human shields or whatever it is”, he continued. “Who are the Tigers? They are children of the people. Every family has a Tiger son or daughter. There’s no separation or lines between Tigers and people”
During the last assualt of Sri Lanka’s war in 2009, Karan was pushing his bike as much as he could, to cover what was happening, checking casualties. He, as one of few Tamil journalists in the war zone, estimated, “death toll from January 14th till April 25th must be at least 8,000, to my foot notes” It is about a thousand more than the UN’s estimation of the same period. In terms of the ‘contested’ toll for the last 3 weeks before the war ended on May19, the UN’s figure is upto some 20,000. Karan has declined to estimate this toll, as he couldn’t push bike anymore due to loss of his bike and intensified heavy shellings. “I can tell you what I personally observed. I don’t want to talk what I heard from others, no” said Karan.
He was ended up in Vavunya internment camps which have been severely restricted to numerous aid NGOs, let alone independent observers including journalists, by the government. He was allocated in ‘Zone 4’, the last set up as of May 20th when he was brought in. However, Karan is now neither held in the camp nor in any part of Sri Lanka. He did escape, first from the camp via the capital city of Colombo to finalize his escape by flying out of Sri Lanka, the country listed as one of the most dangerous for journalist on earth.
To get out from the most dangerous country for journalist
“Why are you sleeping here in the scorching sun? If you have money, you can get out of here”
It was in mid-June 2009, when a stranger whispered to Karan who was sleeping outside tent as his tent was over crowded with 14 people including two married couples, two girls and 70 year-old lady. Trying to figure out whether the stranger could be an army agent or not, Karan simply answered that he was very comfortable to live there. In fact, the veteran journalist was obsessed of thinking as to how he gets out of the camp, where he had uneatable food often ‘recycled’ by adding some water.
“Another day, another man approached me, saying I could get out of the camp if I had money. He was one of those who delivered vegetables for ‘Zone 4’. By then I learnt people started to escape from the camp”
Karan paid 200,000 Rupees (about 1,227 Euro) to the ‘vegetable man’, who in return gave him a specific venue and time. On the arranged day, the vegetable man was driving slowly the area, where Karan would get into the vehicle. Karan covered himself with empty vegetable sacks in a vehicle. Security forces, who were probably bribed, as Karan assumed, might have looked inside the vehicle to find nothing but empty sacks without touching them. After two hours driving, the vehicle arrived in a residential house near Vavunya town, where Karan saw 10 more camp inmates fled by one way or another. Two days later, Karan was given a train ticket for Colombo (via Medawachchi) and companied by one boy who was a part of agents to the Vavunya railway station. The worth of 200,000 rupees Karan paid earmarked for until that time. In the next day morning, Karan found himself in Colombo. It was the end of June 2009.
“In Colombo I met one person who also escaped from the camp. He told me he did by a vehicle carrying dead bodies from the camp. He was hiden under dead bodies”
Karan who had looked grave, now laughing, sitting in a house located in one of the South East Asian cities, to where he flied in mid-July after paying another sheer amount of money for another agent in Colombo.
It is impossible to know how many exactly have escaped from the camp and subsequently the country in this way. The internal report of one aid agency has estimated 5,186 for those who “left without the knowledge of authority” from the camp as of on January 4th 2010, including 3,278 for Anandakumaraswamy (Zone 1) camp alone. A ‘flow’ of escapees taking their own risks was at least a reflection of appalling condition of the barbed wire camp, where security guards were strolling along like in potential battle fields.
‘Escaping package’ in full swing
According to various escapees from ‘Zone 0’ to ‘Zone 4’, some of the controvertial claims on the camps raised by a few British media, seem to be rather common truth as the ‘vehicle carrying dead bodies’ indicated. On July 10th 2009, the British daily The Times has quoted a senior international aid sources as saying “about 1,400 people are dying every week at the giant Manik Farm internment camp”. It was mostly elders and children who were dying out because of simple deseases such as diahrrea or high fever, otherwise seemingly malnutrition according to escapees.
“I went to the hospital in mid-June. Long queue was there as usual. Around 1pm, an old lady fell down, getting cold and dying in hours. Nobody could think of conceding for her, as everybody came to hospital from early morning to get some tablets though”
Jeyabalan (name changed, 23), who had escaped from the Ramanathan camp (Zone 2) in early of November, accounted a death of the old lady. He also talked about a loud speaker announcement once a week on average which went on to say, “Here is a deadbody. Anyone whose family are not seen, please come here to identify”.
Rajini (name changed, 32), who was detained in ‘D2’ block of ‘Zone 4’ for 3 months, has failed to see a doctor for the first 15 days because of long queue. When she finally saw a doctor, the doctor diagnosed pneumonia. But all she’s got were some antifebriles. “More than 20 people died for three months in ‘D2 block’ of ‘Zone 4’, – which was devided into 54 blocks from ‘A1’ to ‘F9’ – to my knowledge. But I was lucky as my block ‘D2’ was nearby main road, whereas block ‘D8’ and ‘D9’ where my relatives were detained, were often flooded if rain fell” added Rajini, who has escaped on August 16th. Apart from elders and children, those having mental problems were also vulnerable to death, said another escapee.
“They even didn’t know if they had to see a doctor. So they were dying.”
Rani (name changed, 22) has recalled one mentally disordered-man who kept climbing over a tree in ‘Arunachalam’ (Zone 3) camp but died later due to unknown desease. “It was crazily difficult to see a doctor. On April 22nd, for example, my father went to the hospital at 3am to get number 89 for me. I saw a doctor at 4pm on that day.” said Sudanth (name changed, 20) a sister of Rani. The pair had escaped from the camp early of July. As dischared from Chettikuram hospital outside camp, where they were admitted with special permission from the Army, they didn’t go back to the camp, leaving other family members behind. The family got immediately informed by relatives about the escape of their children. “Our parents were happy with that” said sisters who are now seeking asylum in Malaysia.
In the meantime, one absurd fact was emerged from accounts by escapees. There were only Sinhalese doctors at hospitals in the camp, with whom Tamils cannot communicate. As a matter of fact, the Sri Lanka’s two different ethnics Tamils and Sinhalese do not speak other’s language in general, which problem has partially caused the brutal ethnic conflict. It also reminds a fact that the government was indignant at 5 Tamil doctors, who were treating a great number of lives in the war zone, giving coherent accounts to the facts-hungry journalists during the war time.
‘Sinhala doctors only’ for Tamil refugees
The lack of all sorts of facilities in the camps seems to have systematically geared up human rights violations and added to the inhuman catastrophe. As some people choosed to go for food, water, bath, toilet or hospital in the early morning or late night to avoid long queue, some of them were alledgedly missing in the darkness. “I saw one mother crying as her daughter went to get water in dark morning but didn’t return till late afternoon” said Karan from Zone 4. Chandra (name changed, 40), who’s escaped from Ananthakumarsuwamy (Zone 1) camp, has a similar story to tell which is a ‘missing followed by death’.
“It was either 23rd or 24th May. People were talking about 6 dead bodies found near the small river, which divides ‘Zone 1’ and ‘Zone 2’. I myself went to the river and saw one dead body. She was the one who stayed next to my tent. She went to toilet early morning but didn’t return. Women often took a bath there in the darkness”
The same episode was accounted by Siva (named changed, 41) who was detained in the other side of the river, which was Ramanathan (Zone 2) camp.
“They were drunk!” Rajini was enraged. “The drunken soldiers came to kitchen or water tank, when people were standing a line late night or early morning, harrassing girls by saying ‘come with me’”. Rajini further talked of how she was humiliated from the very first day of the camp life.
“There was not a single woman officer at the Zone 4 check point as we were brought in. The male soldiers have checked our body as well as our belongings for about 10 minutes per person. I felt indignity but couldn’t help it. Because there’s no one speaking Tamil”
While there’s no one speaking Tamil when it’s desperately needed, there’s one occasion in which people heard or read something in Tamil.
“You have no choice but to cross over to the government side, you will be provided with nice food, water, shelter and all necessities”
That was the propaganda by the government radio as well as air-dropped leaflets during the war time. In reality, nothing was ready for those who had not eaten anything for at least 3-4 days, when they reached at the government-controlled Vaduvakallu from the last battle field Mullivaikal or Vellamullivaika.
“We had spent 3 days in an open field with nothing. The Army counted people till 22,000 and stopped. Some soldiers seemed to be humanitarian because they gave us their food, saying they would not have shelled such heavy amount, if they knew so many people were inside the war zone”
Aravindan (name changed, 28) who has fled the war zone in the morning of 17th May, accounted. From 20th May, people started to be transfered to the Vavunya camps, which were little better than open fields.
“We had tried to keep our dignity even in harsh condition of the war. As soon as we arrived at the camp, however, the Army threw food parcels over our heads. Thousands of people were struggling over a food parcel!”
Recalling the arrival day at the camp, the haughty woman Chandra burst into tears. She’s been eager to hear whereabout her husband and daughter are, from whom she and another daughter were apart in a chaos of last days.
Struggling over A food parcel
It has been 8 months passed since the war ended and also since the president Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly assured that the IDPs would be released for a resettlement ‘within 180 days’. But, this assurance was proved to be a hollow when 180 days had fallen on the end of November. According to the latest report issued by UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair (or UN OCHA) on January 11th, 155,942 have been released as of December 31, whereas 108,106 have been still detained with limited ‘freedom of movement’. Questions are remained if those who were released have been on process for a resettlement.
“Access to return areas, especially the former LTTE-controlled area, is forbidden to NGOs. Hence it’s very difficult for people to get assistance they badly need” one human rights activist in Sri Lanka who doesn’t want to be named said.
Chris Patten, the co-chairman of the Brussell-based International Crisis Group, also wrote about the behind scene of ‘release’, in his contribution for New York Times on January 12th.
“A large portion of the more than 150,000 people recently sent out of the camps have not actually returned to their homes nor been resettled. They’ve been sent to and remain in ‘transit centers’ in their home districts”
As for Karan, Chandra, Jeyabalan, Rajini and thousands others who escaped from the camp are now seeking asylum and protection after getting through horrors of war and miserable camp life. Yet, uncertainty is far ahead as, not only because the countries to where they fled are not a signatory of the UN refugee convention. But also because the signatories seem to be unwilling to accept these asylum seekers. The case of 254 Tamils asylum seekers on the boat at Merak Indonesia, where they have been stranded for more than 100 days in deplorable conditions, has presented xhenophobiotic response from Australia, which is a prime destination for many escapees. Further, negative propaganda on asylum seekers by Sri Lankan government has been folstering with help of some mainstream media which diverted this refugee crisis to the ‘people smugling’, otherwise focusing on ‘Tamil Tigers were on the board’.
“It is not people smuggling” said Irene Khan, the secretary-general of Amnasty International.
“I would call it a flow of asylum-seekers. These people are in search of protection, the international community is doing very little. There isn’t any resettlement of refugees taking place, refugee protection is very weak and, therefore, people are taking the situation into their own hands to desperately find a place where they can have safety.” she pointed out in an interview with Al-Jazeera.
The article in german at
and in korean at
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