Resettlement, Reconciliation ‘in limbo’

–          Another ‘white flag’ shooting claimed –

Lee Yu Kyung, Sri Lanka

Note : The variety of this article has been already published (and reproduced) in outlets in Korean, English and German in accordance with the limited space of each outlet. In this post, I added some others’ accounts, such as Ms.Anoma – a wife of  the former army commander Sara Fonseka – and a witness of the last assault, who described of  another ‘white flag’ shooting.-ed

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Men in uniform, mainly young soldiers holding AK 47, are seen all around northern Sri Lanka, from Mannar in north-west to Mullaitivu, the last battle field in north-east. In Mullaitivu, there are said to be more soldiers than civilians.

At the Omanthai military check point in Vavunia district, passengers are stopped to have their ID checked. Those travelling from Vavuniya town, only 4-5 kilometres away, have already had the same ID card checked three times. Those travelling to or from Jaffna — the capital of the Northern province — have their belongings searched.

“Don’t worry, [they’re] just checking”, one cheerful Tamil man was trying to comfort me in a bus heading for Jaffna. “Peace has come. You can go everywhere.”

However, “everywhere” is not for “everyone”. At Omanthai checkpoint, foreigners are turned back if they don’t have a clearance from the Ministry of Defense. I phoned the Ministry beforehand and was told I would be allowed to travel by land. At the checkpoint, however, I was turned away for lack of a pass to show. Foreigners are generally only able to visit to Jaffna by air. Little wonder they do not want foreigners to travel on the heavily militarized A9 road, which stretches out through the war-ravaged north.

The road from Mannar, the capital of the Mannar district, to Vavuniya has many military posts. In Mannar district, armed soldiers stand on street corners of alleys or in middle of the road in small villages as well as towns.

“Go that way”, “Come this way” and “Open your bag” are the only words in Sinhalese — the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority — that most Tamil villagers in the area understand. Soldiers stationed in the area speak hardly any Tamil. With communication often impossible, checkpoints were volatile point during the war. Some people were seen for the last time at a checkpoint, never to return.

“My husband was seen last at the army checkpoint in 2007”, 33-year-old Anoja (name changed) said. “The next day, I went to the checkpoint with my neighbor, who speaks Sinhalese, to ask where my husband was.

“A soldier told us we can come inside to check. We were scared, so we left”

Anoja showed all sorts of papers issued by police, the Human Rights Commission and human rights groups, all of whom she has reported her husband’s case to.

Another woman from the same village has been looking for her missing brother since 2007, when he was last seen at a checkpoint. The 35-year-old woman lost her mother, elder brother and sister when all were shot dead by the Sri Lankan Army in early 1990s.

There are tens of thousands war widow in Sri Lanka’s North and East. Many of their family members have gone missing, while passing military checkpoint. The woman, whose husband has disappeared at the military checkpoint in the North, has kept her reports with human right groups and police, hoping to find out her husband. (Photo @ Yu K. Lee)

The military’s heavy presence in the north has, ironically, grown drastically after the more than three-decades-long war ended. Whereas the resettlement in the north of Tamil ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs), which is supposed to be a top priority in the post-war era, is developing at a snail’s pace at best. About 300,000 Tamils were held in IDP camps at the end of the war.

All aid provided to help resettlement is overseen by the “commander in charge” of the area. Aid items have to go through army checkpoint set up at the entry of each resettled area. Severe restrictions on NGOs and aid, which have left IDP camps vulnerable to disease and short on food, have now been extended into resettlement areas.

“We were told by the area commander not to use vehicles with our organisation’s logo. Without the logo, we could bring in aid for the people.” An aid worker in Vanni said.

In “P” village in Mannar, thousands of people began to resettle almost one year ago. But most villagers have no means to cope with the rainy season. People are living in temporary housing made of tin sheets provided by the International Organization for Migration.

When released from IDP camps, people were given 25,000 rupee (about $224) by UNHCR. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) promised to provide basic food items for six months. A woman from the village said: “Luckily, we were provided with food by WFP until August. It was more than six months.

“Now, we have sowed seeds provided by government for cultivation. [But] until the harvest in about four months’ time, we have no food.”

Some jobs have been available for villagers, such as cleaning public places, which pay about $4.5 per day. But it is far from sustainable work. There are no medical facilities or electricity, other than solar lanterns provided by Caritas for some families with students.

Despite shortfalls, aid and government workers in the region agreed that “P” village is one of the best resettlement cases. While villagers and NGOs complained about the vicious restrictions on aid for the desperate population, government workers nodded of those complaints.

“Some 150 families, who were resettled in and around Periamadu area, were given nothing. But the government hasn’t given permission to NGOs [to help]” said Sanjive (name changed), a 32-year-old field worker.

“There’s no toilets for those resettled in August, while those who were resettled in September were given only roof materials.” He added.

In early September, Suresh Premanchandra, an MP from the Tamil National Alliance, revealed that 255 families, or 1215 people, were prevented by the commander in charge at Mullaitivu from resettling in their place of origin. No aid has been provided for these people, who are living in a school.

Another Tamil politician, Mano Ganeshan, equated the situation with the one in Palestine. “This is what has been going on in Palestine. Palestinians have lived in refugee camps for generations,” he said. “The government wants to keep Tamils desperate for more years. This is so people will only be concerned with food and shelter, and they won’t think of political or social rights”.

Militarization in the war-ravaged northern Sri Lanka has been modeled on the ‘Manar-Vavunya road’, where numerous military posts and soldiers are seen in deforested sides. (Photo @ Yu K. Lee)

It is not by accident that the most solid structure in “P” village is a military camp. When asked how she felt when she first arrived back in her hometown after being displaced for years and then detained in an IDP camp, 32-year-old Buddima (name changed), whispered:

“Terrified”

After a pause, she continued: “We are not getting used to live under the army control or being surrounded by them like this. This is terrible.”

The situation for those in the IDPs camps, meanwhile, appears to be getting back to be primitive now that most IDPs have been released.

Government statistics compiled by UNHCR put the number of IDPs released as of August 30 at 258,846. This indicates that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 IDPs are still detained in the camps.

The world community, appalled by the forced detention of hundreds of thousands of Tamils in barb-wire surrounded camps, demanded the Sri Lankan government release people as quickly as possible. However, the situation for the IDPs after their release, as well as for those still in the camps, has not been paid attention by the world community. Those still in the camps say the conditions are inadequate.

“[There have been] no more bowser supplies of [drinking] water since August. Electricity, which used to be available 24 hours-a-day, is now available only five hours each day” said Rani (name changed), a 21-year-old woman held in the Zone 4 IDP camp.

“The army and GA [government agent, a local administrative worker] told us to move to a transit camp. But many of us rejected this because we’re afraid that the authorities will screen people again and take away youths on suspicion they are LTTE”.

Rani was allowed out of the camp for 10 days at the end of September. She said one man who returned after his allowed 10 days was severely beaten by soldiers as a ‘punishment’. After beaten up, according to Rani, the man seemed to be taken away to the detention camp for LTTE ‘suspects’.

“I learned that he had to look after his ailing parents, who were transferred from Vavunya to  Colombo. That’s why he returned late.”

Another IDP from Zone 4 camp, 35-year-old Sara (name changed), complained about shortages of food and other necessities. “I often eat rice and dhal only”, she said, “no vegetables or other items provided”. Sara, who has lost all her family members and is alone in the camp, said the camp had stopped providing soap since June.

Bullet marks all over some remained buildings in war-ravaged north of Sri Lanka. (Photo @ Yu K. Lee)

Accounts by Sara and Rani backed up a report in June from United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The report said: “Food commodities for IDPs donated by the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] came to an end on 31 May …Drinking water distribution shortfalls [are] possible at the end of July.”

One-and-a-half years after the Asia’s longest wars ended, the Sri Lankan government does not seem to be taking its claim of seeking “reconciliation” with the island’s Tamils seriously. Rather, President Mahinda Rajapakse has focused on keeping his family’s power intact, leaving root cause of the brutal conflict perfectly intact.

A constitutional reform passed on September 8 is a prime example. It removes president term limits and authorizes the president to appoint the heads of all independent commissions.

“The reform was introduced without any public notice, discussion or consultation. It is very regressive on ethnic issues as well.”  Rohan Edrisinha, a professor of Colombo University, said.

“They are crazy for power. It’s happening to us today, but it will happen to others tomorrow. There’s no democracy at all in this country” Ms.Anoma Fonseka(53), a wife of the former army chief Sara Fonseka, who’s been in prison, strongly but composedly criticized.

“My husband has told the president and other Ministers that IDPs should be release. Not only one time, but several times” said Ms. Anoma, who has nevertheless denied what Sara Fonseka reportedly said that it was the Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse who ordered ‘shoot them all’ of surrendered LTTE leaders and their family waving white flag. “He just heard that from other” she added, referring to a journalist, who was embedded with the 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army in the last battle field.

Sanjive Rubaganatha (3) has many scars of war over his body. He often draws something, which he said, ‘dead bodies’ or ‘shelling’. After a year and half since the war ended, the Rajapakse regime has not much keen on healing the war scars among Tamil population. (Photo @ Yu K. Lee)

Meanwhile Daily Mirror, one of the daily newspapers in Sri Lanka, quoted the government agent in Jaffna as testifying before Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on November 4. “No one was shot by the army when they crossed over carrying white flags”. Yes or no, as there was another claim of white flag shooting in different situation. It was happening not in a situation of cross fire or crossing over in chaos, but in a situation where there’s obviously no hostility by the rebels, who then seemed to be wiped out, surrendered, or probably hidden out in deep jungle.

“On May 17 (2009), LTTE were still fighting till around 5 pm and then no more. I was still inside a small bunker. One priest from the other bunker was shouting at remained people “army is here”. He further shouted “you all take your white flag to come out”. I tried a few times to come out holding white flag, but only firing coming towards us. It was after 6:30 pm. We, about hundreds of people, among who were small children, elderly people, were moving towards the army – at 30 meters away – holding lantern to show our white flags. As we came near them, the army shouted “don’t come, go back”.  As we turn back, they were shooting toward us. We all lie down. After they stop firing, we all crawled to the bunker about 20 meters away. There were heavy shelling, blasts and grenade all around over a night. No LTTE there. The army only were shooting towards bunkers one by one. There were thousands of bunkers. It was a miracle for us to escape all those firings”.

Having been the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing against the Tamil minority, the Island is now being transformed into the Rajapakse family’s personal kingdom, which has been a subject of international debate of a war crime. There is no guarantee that, with the regime seeking to strengthen its grip on power, the ongoing mistreatment of Tamils and shutting all mouths talking of war crime, the ever present guns will remain silent.

relevant publications at

http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/46034

http://h21.hani.co.kr/arti/world/world_general/28367.html

http://www.neues-deutschland.de/artikel/183988.wenig-versoehnliches-auf-sri-lanka.html

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