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Island of lost souls

For the displaced Tamils of Sri Lanka, the war of life is likely to continue for many years, writes Sutirtho Patranobis.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2009 11:55 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

The Republic Day reception on the evening of January 26 in Colombo was a gala affair. There was song, dance and kebabs. On the soft lawns of India House, diplomats and dilettantes, politicians and patrons milled around chatting and patting each other, drinking fruit juice with smiles on their lips.

But under the veneer of sound and light, the topic of discussion was a worrying one: the fast unfolding humanitarian crisis in north Sri Lanka. The United Nations had come out with a report earlier in the day that many civilians had been killed and had given enough indications that worse was in store for them. “There have been many civilians killed over the last two days. It’s really a crisis now,” said UN resident coordinator Neil Buhne.

This crisis is not new; it’s only more current. Sri Lanka has had a history of refugees since the war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began in 1983. Soon after, the first Tamil refugees were displaced from Manal Aru area in the north, the main theatre of battle now.

Tamils were not alone in getting forced out of their lives and homes. In October 1990, the LTTE drove out 80,000 Muslims from the north with just two hours’ notice. The majority of them continue to languish in refugee camps in the Puttalam district in west Lanka.

The ongoing crisis has been developing ominously since the middle of 2006 when the army gradually began to gain territory. As the army advanced, civilians moved out, taking with them their belongings and the burden of history. The LTTE’s political capital Kilinochchi and military nerve centre Mullaitivu were deserted when soldiers walked in recently.

Depending on who you are talking to, the number of the displaced varies. From the government’s latest figure of 1.2 lakh to anything between 2 lakh and 3.5 lakh suggested by Tamil political parties, international NGOs and rights groups. The Mahinda Rajapaksa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) says that in the government’s refugee list the names of around 90,000 people have been written at least twice. The numbers may be disputed but the bleak future of the displaced is not.

The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) — UTHR(J) — says the people of the Vanni, the name of the vast, forested area which used to be under LTTE control, are now divided into three main groups: those who have escaped to India; those confined to camps in central and eastern Lanka; and the “estimated 250,000 within the shrinking LTTE-controlled area, living without proper care and shelter, and regularly subjected to army bombing and shelling”.

The LTTE at its peak had about 15,000 sq km under its control. As of January 31, barely 260 sq km remain with it. Even if 1.2 lakh is the number of the displaced, shrinking geography would mean that they are getting slowly and painfully sandwiched between the rapidly advancing Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the retreating rebels.

But is the SLA alone to blame for the plight of the refugees? The LTTE quite clearly does not have any reason to allow the IDPs (internally displaced persons) to move to secure areas. Also, many — maybe most — among the displaced could very well be sympathetic to the cause of the Eelam. The rebels claim that they are not forcing, and never did force, the displaced to remain with them.

But it may not be that simple. The LTTE is aware that if the displaced move to the safe zone, or areas under government control, the Sri Lankan army propelled by its current momentum of military success might just wipe out the last standing Tamil Tiger. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on his part, has declared a safe zone for the displaced, guaranteeing their safety and security. That might be a noble thought but possibly only in theory.

The government is both aware and wary of the remaining LTTE cadres — their number according to army chief Sarath Fonseka is 600 — mingling and melting among the civilians to save their lives and cause. A senior minister said as much: how does the army differentiate a displaced Tamil man in tatters from a well-trained, ruthless LTTE cadre who has stepped out of his fatigues and stepped into a blue sarong? You don’t have to think very hard to get the logic. The Bangladeshi maid who comes to your home in the morning claims to be from Bengal, right?

So, the possibility of the army and the government welcoming the displaced with open arms and a mind which is ajar remains doubtful.

Critics give the example of how the Tamils are treated in Jaffna, under government control since 1995. “In Jaffna, the attitude of the government is reflected in the enormous restrictions on movement, such as the arbitrary closure of roads for several hours to allow an army convoy to pass. Long bureaucratic delays, of weeks or months, are required to gain permission to leave the peninsula and fly to Colombo. This has brought the economy to a standstill. By imposing a debilitating security regime on the Tamils, the government is virtually forcing the Tamils to go elsewhere,” says the UTHR(J).

The Lankan military might be close to declaring a famous victory over the LTTE. But for the displaced Tamils the war of life is likely to continue for many years to come.

(Sutirtho Patranobis is Sri Lanka correspondent, Hindustan Times)