Eye-witness to Sri Lanka, summer 2010

On May 2009, the Sri Lanka government declared an end to the war on the Tamil Tigers and to the suffering of innocent Tamils who were victims of the war. Yet this simple statement was put to the test during my visit to Sri Lanka this summer. It was a very unforgettable visit for a number of reasons. It gave me a chance to experience the life of Tamils in Sri Lanka and also see the true situation in the country for myself.

Report by Keerthikan

I stayed in a small village in the northern part of Jaffna. I was able to travel to some places without many difficulties, as long as these places were not in the restricted areas. I also got a slight view of these restricted locations such as the west side of Vanni when travelling in the bus on the way to Madu. These places are under high supervision and observation. Some major roads in north and east Sri Lanka are still not open, which makes people travel for extra hours. Although I spent most of the time in Jaffna, I was able to get a feel of the current problems.

Tamil civilians in the eastern side of Vanni are not allowed to go to their home-town. They live in the camps, but people have started to form their lives by getting a seven-day pass from the military to leave the camps and build their life in different places where they can survive and build a new home.

However, they must return to the camps within seven days or they will be in trouble. All of them return within the seven-day period as they are all afraid of what will happen if they do not. People are queuing to get the seven-day pass every week. They only stay one night a week in the camps; on the other days they are staying in the houses which they build by themselves.

I don’t understand why these people need to go back to the camps even after they have proven they can survive in a different place. These incidents make me feel that the Sri Lankan government is treating all Tamil minority people like criminals. Innocent civilians who had no involvement in the war are being treated as prisoners and being told what to do on a daily basis.

eye4Some of the people from the east side of Vanni are held in the transaction centres in a number of locations around the country. These transaction centres are similar to the camps. Some of the transaction centres were built as part of the tsunami project, as temporary buildings for people affected by the tsunami until they built new houses. So people are using temporary houses which are 6 years old.

I was able to speak to some of these people in the transaction camps and also those who are using the passes from camps. They all just wanted to return to their home-towns to their own homes and properties but they were not allowed to do so. They want to lead a normal life away from restrictions and have the basic human needs and rights. They are very fed up with this, and said to me that it would have been better if they had died in Mullivaikal rather than be in their current situation.

During my visit I was able to understand the reason why there is constant news of crimes in the Tamil-situated areas. There is so much crime in these areas because there are no proper civil or public services. Although there are quite a lot of police forces placed in the north and east of the country, most of them cannot speak Tamil and are therefore unable to solve problems as they cannot understand the cause. There are continual misunderstandings between the police and the civilians due to this language issue.

In a democratic country when there is a problem the police or the court has to sort it out. In Sri Lanka the army gets involved, making the situation worse. The civilians, who are frightened by the army, have no rights to defend themselves against accusations by the military, and they are sometimes punished for crimes they have not committed.

Unused weapons such as live bullets were lying on the sand in areas where the army used to do training exercises, but is now a living area for civilians and a place for children to play in. This is a great danger and it’s surprising that these weapons were not removed before letting civilians live there. I could see the used rounds were near people’s homes. I asked a boy why these are here. He said that the army trained here, he had seen the Sri Lankan army training only 50 yards away from where the people are living. I also saw that the unfired rounds would be very dangerous, if children put them in a fire it could kill people.

eye2The conditions of schools in north Jaffna are appalling. As I visited a primary and secondary school in north Jaffna, I was shocked by the conditions. There were no proper classrooms for the children to study in. These so-called classrooms were separated by a very thin make-shift wall. While I was in one classroom, I was able to hear the teachers teaching in the two other classrooms next to it. The school that I went to was in mid-construction and there was building equipment still lying around. It was a very unsafe environment for the children to study in.

eye3School staff working conditions were equally as bad. The cooking staff were required to cook in the sand, using a cottage for a kitchen. I saw bugs in the rice which is given by the World Food Programme, an agency of the United Nations. The UN talks a lot about health so they can collect money from western donors, but they give food which is unhealthy to students.

I visited an area that was affected by the Tsunami which happened in 2004. Six years has passed since the disaster and the area still had traces of it. The people in these areas were removed to a transaction camp and have only recently been allowed to move to their new place. They were resettled so late because the Sri Lankan army designated that place a higher security zone in 2005, and so they wouldn’t allow the people to visit their homes. Also, Sri Lankan soldiers stole personal belongings from people who were horribly affected by tsunami, who had lost their close relatives, were living in temporary small houses and looking to charity for their daily needs.

They were only allowed to return in the middle of 2009. Their new homes, some of them still not completed, are much further away than previously from the ocean supposedly to prevent another disastrous incident.

Some charities give money to people for 70% of the cost of building their house, but the charities only give this money to people after they have built the house. So people get a loan from the bank instead to build the houses. The charity process for distributing money take months to accept people’s applications, and then they give money split over different occasions.

People are in debt and paying interest on loans before they get all the charity money. The charities won’t pay people’s debt interest. But people are homeless and in debt from the war and the tsunami – the charities are leaving those people in debt by taking so long to give the money and this stupid idea about giving the money after building the house. All the charities only aim to build enough houses to help their good name with western donors.

A school also needs to be built far away from the sea, but this school construction has not even started. Instead the children are being given education in an old school building of poor quality about 100 yards away from the ocean.

This building is so close to the ocean that three classrooms, the wall around the school and the school kitchen were destroyed by the tsunami. I personally saw lots of charities collect millions of dollars from the West for tsunami relief. I don’t see any good reason why these people have been left out from charitable help.

During the 30 years of war in north and east Sri Lanka, the stocks of fish in the sea have grown because in that area for most of the time fishing was banned for security reasons, and in the short time it was allowed, people didn’t have much equipment to catch much fish.

Today, Tamil fishermen in the north and east have poorer fishing equipment compared to the Sinhala fishermen who have begun coming to fish in northern Sri Lanka for their livelihood. The Sri Lankan government spent so much money on “security” that this has started to cause people to lose their jobs, especially in the south where the majority of the population lives.

Some people from southern Sri Lanka, mainly Sinhala people, will move to the north where they can find jobs more easily than in the south.

One soldier admitted that they have plans for 50 Sinhalese families to move to a specific village. With more Sinhala people moving north, there are higher chances of fighting between each community over small resources.

Already Tamil minority people feel that they are ruled by Sinhala people and that they are being treated like a colony by the Sinhalese.

Already we can see that in the north and east where Tamil minority people live, all the decision-makers on rehabilitation, all the security forces and the most powerful people are Sinhalese. Tamil minority people are very angry that their land has been taken by Sinhala people while they were living in tents and kept in camps by the Sri Lanka security forces.

It is extremely urgent that the situation is resolved. People in the camps and transaction centres must immediately be allowed to leave, to return to their homes and to resettle.

Jobs need to be created, in the south and all over the country. If the present situation lasts too long, Sri Lanka could rip apart as easily as a paper map of the country.