400 000 displaced Tamils in the Vanni area

Place: Vanni | Courtesy: U.S Committe for Refugees
| Date: 19961216

USCR staff members Hiram A. Ruiz and Katie Hope recently visited Sri Lanka. They will be detailing their findings and making recommendations in a forthcoming report. Following is a brief account of some of USCR's principal observations:

"...There are an estimated 400,000 displaced persons in the Vanni-jungle region in the north of Sri Lanka that is largely under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to NGOs and local government officials, many of the displaced possibly as many as half do not receive government assistance, allegedly because the government views the group as possible LTTE supporters.

The government also does not assist Kilinochchi residents who fled their district following the Sri Lankan military's July military offensive there. Those without food rations are the most vulnerable of the displaced in the Wanni. They make up amajority of those remaining in the public shelters. They have exhausted whatever personal resources they had, and there is little or no employment available to them. Although food is available in private shops and in markets, they do not have the means to purchase it.

Government prevents NGOs from supplying medicine

Even displaced persons who do receive government assistance face the problem that government aid, particularly medicines and other medical supplies, does not arrive in a timely manner. Doctors and NGOs providing medical help complain bitterly that govern- ment supplies of medicines ofen arrive months late and in insuff cient quantities to meet local needs. NGOs say that they have offered to provide their own medicines and supplies bu that the government has denied them permission to do so, claiming that it is providing all the aid required.

On October 22, the Sri Lankan government, which had earlier encouraged displaced persons to leave the Wanni and move to government-held Vavuniya, but had subsequently prevented many of them from actually doing so, lifted most restrictions on movement into Vavuniya.

Some 14,000 displaced persons crossed over during a two-week period. Those who crossed wanted either to join relatives living in Vavuniya, to use Vavuniya as a transit point to the south or abroad, to seek medical treatment or conduct personal business in the south, or return to Jaffna from Vavuniya.

The Sri Lankan government assisted some 6,000 people to return to Jaffna, but has detained 8,000 others who do not wish to return in eleven 'welfare centers.' USCR visited four of these welfare centers and witnessed appalling conditions.

Overcrowding contribute to health problems, including rapid spread of infections and diseases. Camp residents many of whomare elderly or sick said that they were frustrated by their unexpected detention and lack of information of their future.

Wanni Displaced are Reluctant to return to Jaffna:

While some of the displaced in the Wanni do not want to return to Jaffna as long as it is under the control of the Sri Lankan military, others say that they would return but are concerned about reports of continuing security problems there. They note that disappear- ance of a number of young people, many of whom the military have probably arrested and detained without notifying their families, and reports that Sri Lankan soldiers have raped girls and women. Virtually all displaced persons saidthey had been particularly alarmed by the recent case in which several soldiers raped and murdered a school girl and also murdered relatives who went to search for her.

USCR visited Jaffna and found that while conditions there are much better than in the Wanni (in terms of the availability offood to all, health services, education, commercial activity etc.) many of Jaffna residents security concerns are valid. Some Jaffna residents complained about the many security check points in the city and about the behavior of some soldiers at the checkpoints. Problems arise in part because of the tension between the soldiers, who are ethnic Sinhalese, do not speak Tamil, and who may view most tamils as potential LTTE supporters, and city residents, and who may resent the soldiers or be afraid of them because of disppearances and rapes.

Jaffna residents said that their primary requests include these: that the military cease arbitrary arrests; that it acknowledge the arrests it makes; that the military follow due process; that it take steps to end abuses (such as rape) by soldiers; that soldiers be more respectful of civilians at checkpoints; that the military begin to hadn over administration of the city to the civilian authorities; and that the local and international NGOs be permitted to carry out relief and rehabilitation activities.

Flight to India

As some displaced persons in the Wanni weigh the decision whether whether to return to Jaffna, others consider going to India. More than 6,000 tamils have made their way to the refugee camps in India in recent months and others continue to prepare to do so. Both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments have sought to prevent Sri Lankan refugees from reaching India. The Indian government has said it will confiscate boats bringing refugees to India. The Sri Lankan navy has interceptedrefugees at sea-including more than 300 during October- and returned them to Sri Lankan government-held Mannar island. It claims that the LTTE was forcing the refugees to go to India and that it was charging them 4,000 to 6,000 rupees (US $70 to $105) for the journey.

USCR interviewed newly arrived refugees at fve camps in India. The refugees said that they had fled to India to escape fighting, fear and hunger, to ensure safety and health of their families and to increase their children's chances of getting an education.