‘Humanitarian disaster’ faces civilians in Sri Lanka's Vanni region

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: JesRef
| Date: 20000913

More fighting has broken out in Sri Lanka with the launching of an army offensive in the north and fresh rebel attacks in Trincomalee in the east of the country. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) launched an offensive in early September against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Jaffna and Chavakachcheri areas in a bid to capture a suburb of Jaffna called Colombuthurai.

SLA troops shelled civilian zones, causing “several thousand” to flee their homes, according to the LTTE. Heavy fighting continues in the area, as the SLA carried out another attack on 10 September.

The Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savandaranayagam, called on both parties to stop fighting during the election campaign and to refrain from indiscriminate shelling. The bishop said a shell recently exploded in the precincts of his church as a group of more than 20 children were playing cricket. He said it was a miracle nobody was hurt.

Sources report: “The days of 2 and 3 September saw more carnage on the outskirts of Jaffna, initiated by the SLA assisted by their air force which gave them ground cover. The attack is seen by many as a last-ditch attempt to flush out the rebels from the Jaffna peninsula before parliamentary elections are held on 10 October, scheduled for next month. For two days, the warring groups fired long-range missiles at each other without respite at Colombothurai.

The fear stricken residents of Jaffna never ventured out. Anguish and tension was prevalent as people worried that another prolonged battle may be in the offing, leading to further displacement, starvation and the destruction of public property.

Nearly 450 young fighters reportedly lost their lives in the battle. Most were beyond recognition as their bodies had been mutilated. This meaningless two-day clash brought nothing but havoc to civilians. The ultimate result of this showdown was another stalemate causing untold misery to the people.”

Meanwhile, a suicide bomb attack in Colombo claimed the lives of seven people and intensified an atmosphere of fear in the capital. The LTTE are suspected to be behind the bombing.

Detained suspects: justice delayed is justice denied The visit of 10 human rights lawyers from Colombo to a prison in Badulla town, Uva Province was sponsored by JRS last month. The majority of the 60 detainees interviewed by the lawyers have been remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or the Emergency Regulations. The regulations were introduced in May as part of a package to put Sri Lanka on a war footing following escalated conflict in Jaffna.

The detainees rarely receive visits from lawyers as they were arrested in a different province (Eastern Province) to where they are detained. Their cases will be heard in Amparai High Court in Eastern Province. So lawyers from Badulla do not visit them and lawyers from Eastern Province do not visit either as the prison is too far away.

The detainees interviewed by the lawyers have complained of torture and ill treatment at the hands of police while in custody. Action has been taken to bring this to the notice of the proper authorities. Amnesty International said the introduction of the emergency regulations has resulted in increased reports of torture and other rights abuses. According to the international human rights watchdog, the wide power given to security forces to detain suspects may be responsible for the increased reports of torture.

Apart from providing legal assistance to the detainees when they appear in court, JRS has also set up a program of support for the families of detainees, particularly for children’s education. When the family breadwinner is arrested and detained for a long period without trial, the rest of the family face pressing financial problems. Two or more years can pass before the trial of the detainee is concluded.

One of the consequences of having no family income is that often children must forgo their education. Being unable to attend school, the children become frustrated, an easy target for recruitment as soldiers. The JRS program allows children to continue their education until their father is released from prison. JRS intends to increase support to needy families as circumstance demands. Generating employment and rehabilitation opportunities for those released from prison at the conclusion of their trial is another step JRS plans to take.