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SL refugees for NGOs, but Govt is wary

The Govt suspects that NGOs have hidden agendas inimical to Lanka's security, reports PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Apr 05, 2007 11:03 IST

Reluctant to go back to their places of origin before a complete cessation of hostilities between the Sri Lankan Security Forces and the LTTE, Tamil refugees in Batticaloa district want the government to improve the conditions in the camps by allowing Sri Lankan and international NGOs (INGOs) to work there.

But by asking for NGOs and INGOs, the refugees are touching a raw nerve.The Rajapaksa government suspects that NGOs, especially the foreign and foreign-funded ones, have hidden agendas inimical to Sri Lanka's security and national interests.

To the government, an NGO-LTTE diabolical nexus is almost axiomatic.

However, due to intense international pressure, the government has been saying that INGOs and NGOs can work in the East and that there is no undue restriction.

But a top defence official alleged that these organisations were keen on working only in the LTTE-controlled areas, not in the government-controlled areas!

<b1>Ground realities are, however, different. At the ground level, the NGOs say that they are ready to work, but government is putting spokes in the wheel. They also allege that they have to pay off officials and the Karuna group.

In the meanwhile, the 150, 000 refugees in Batticaloa district are suffering for want of adequate care.

"Officials and politicians, including the district MPs, do not visit us," complained a refugee from Vavunathivu.

Basic amenities given

To be fair to the government, most refugee camps are neatly laid out, constructed by Sri Lankan and international organisations on land given by it.

Water supply is adequate. The Vettukadu camp, hosting 184 apparently well to do farmers' families from Trincomalee, is the best among the ones one saw.

According to the Bishop of Batticaloa, Rev. Kingsley Swampillai, the camps put up by the government in Vaharai are quite good.

"The returnees are happy there," he said.

Batticaloa residents say that Vaharai is being developed as a showpiece of the government's rehabilitation programme, in the face of international criticism that the military actions against the LTTE have created a phenomenal humanitarian crisis.

The government has allowed the displaced children go to the nearest school. Those who were teachers are encouraged to teach.

Those who were government servants, are paid their salaries. The district administration supplies essential commodities like rice, dhal, sugar and cooking oil once in 15 days.

Hands across Tamil-Muslim divide

Some local Muslim and Tamil organisations, considered to be safe by the government, have been allowed to work among the refugees.

The Kattankudy Mosques Association, led by Al Haj KMM Khaleel, had collected SLRs 1.7 million for relief work. He even supplied cooked food through the Batticaloa district Hindu Association.

Muslim youths had run camps in Ariyampathi and Karbala . Other Muslim organisations, including a media group and the All Ceylon Jamaat-e-Islami, had run medical camps at the height of the influx.

"The Tamils and Muslims of the East are mutually dependent and cannot but cooperate and live together," Khaleel said.

He blamed the politicians and Tamil militants for the gulf that now separates the two communities in the North East.

Khaleel said that even now the Karuna faction was trying to sow seeds of animosity between the Tamils and Muslims.

"It tried to prevent Muslims from supplying food to the refugees," he alleged.

Good but not enough

"But what we get from the government and other agencies is not enough," says Ponnaiah, from Mutur East living in the Vettukadu camp.

The food rations given by the government just won't do, she pointed out.

Most don't have money to buy for themselves and hence they desperately need outside help.

Since they came with nothing except the clothes they were wearing, they needed basic household goods too.

"We have no vessels. The villagers in the vicinity cook for us," said Thayaparan a coolie from Vilavattuvan in Vavunathivu.

The camp for the Kokkadicholai refugees is like a slum, probably because it houses the very poor coolies. The tents are full of holes and the people look diseased and underfed.

"The NGOs can help and are ready to help, but the government is discouraging them," said Thangavadivel of the Vettukadu camp.

A Catholic religious dignitary, who did not want to be identified, said that many overseas Tamils had tried to help, but in vain.

"The government thinks these are LTTE agents!" he said.

"The government should realise that but for the NGOs and INGOs, we would not have survived the tsunami," he added.

Insecurity

Camp inmates worry about security.

"When there is some LTTE action near by, the army may come here and seize some of our young men. Later, their bodies may be displayed as those of LTTE cadres," said an inmate of the Vettukadu camp.

Such things had happened, according to complaints received by the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC).

There have also been some abductions by the LTTE and the Karuna faction from the camps.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) had said in its latest report that in the last three months, the LTTE had abducted four persons, and the Karuna group three.

Fleeing to India

A few refugees like Mohan Raj and his family, had fled to India stealthily.

One was told that well organised human smugglers charged SLRs 8,500 per person for the journey over land to Mannar on the West coast, and then across the Palk Strait to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.

But most refugees cannot afford the trip now, having lost all their belongings. And the enterprise is also risky, because the land as well as the sea routes are under strict surveillance by the police, army and the navy.