Packed in, short of water, and harassed by army: Tamils languish in prison-like camps

Doctors warn of impending disaster as thousands are held months after war’s end

Guardian: Monday 14 Sept 2009

Living by a palm-fringed golden beach on the edge of the Indian Ocean, Suganthinhi Thesamanikam considers herself lucky to be alive after living through the hell of war.

Civilians behind a barbed-wire fence at Manik Farm camp. The government says it has to use extreme measures to screen out rebels Photograph: David Gray/Reuters
Caught between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army, she dodged bullets and shells for two years before ending up on the sandy littoral where the rebel leadership was routed in May, in a bloody ending to a 25-year-old civil war. Three of her cousins were killed during the last days of heavy aerial bombardment.

Herded by the army, the 22-year-old then lived for four months under a tin roof, surviving on dry rations and going days without clean water in a vast, overcrowded camp behind barbed wire and armed soldiers.

“We were harassed day and night and the men were hit with rifles if they talked back to the soldiers. I don’t know why, we were not LTTE, we are ordinary poor people,” she said.
She was one of the first Tamils to be resettled from the camps last month, and says she has found some solace in her mother’s shack on the seashore near the harbour town of Trincomalee. But her husband remains inside one of ity. “We need some measure of assistance for innocent civilians.”

There is growing pressure on the government to free the tens of thousands of Tamils still being kept in camps. The UN, which has provided funding of $188m (about £113m), says it cannot pay for the camps indefinitely. “We need not only for the government to let people go but also to allow freedom of movement,” said a UN spokesman in Colombo.

But Sri Lanka insists it must screen everyone to weed out any rebels.

Authorities also fear that once the civilian population is returned, the Tamil Tigers will be able to regroup, despite claims that the organisation is all but finished.

“The military wing is dead,” said a former fighter who was a commander with the Tigers’ navy. “For now we have to live under the occupation of the army in our historic homeland. An uprising failed, that is all.”