By Noel Nadesan
This speech was delivered at Mural room, Parliament, Canberra recently
There are several controversial reports on the conditions of the IDPs housed in the camps. In this speech Dr. Noel Nadesan analyses clinically, without political biases, the realistic conditions that prevail in the IDP camps. This is a first-hand report that is a `must read` to get behind the political spin that has distorted the realities of the conditions faced by the IDPs.
The armed resistance from among the Tamils living in the northern and eastern provinces had spanned a period of thirty years, before being brought to a dramatic end on May 18, 2009.
It is not my intention to discuss the reasons for the armed resistance, herein. However, the armed resistance identified with the Tamil minority within Sri Lanka, evolved over time into a civil war, where the armed forces of Sri Lanka were pitted against the armed forces of the LTTE. The LTTE had established the rudiments of a state within the island and had developed the military structures to be on par or in some instances superior to those of the Sri Lankan state. However, what was deemed impossible was accomplished by the Sri Lankan armed forces on May 18, this year.
The LTTE combined conventional, and Guerilla warfare, with a heavy sprinkling of various acts of terrorism in its operations against the Sri Lankan state and its people, including Tamils. The details of this act of terrorism are too well known.
However, the lasting legacy of the just ended civil war, are the large number of `Internally Displaced Persons` scattered around the island, with the biggest concentration in Vavuniya.
The IDPs in Sri Lanka can be classified into several categories:
1. The Tamils who have scattered to various parts of the South, of their free-will, to escape the ravages of war, including LTTE and the armed forces.
2. The Tamils who were forced out of their normal habitations during the course of the war and had to be accommodated in camps by the government.
3. The Sinhala villagers who were forced out of the border villages, because of LTTE terrorism.
4. The Muslims who were forcibly driven out of the Northern Province by the LTTE and are living in camps in Puttalam for 20 years.
5. The Tamils who moved with the LTTE as the war progressed towards it culmination starting when the LTTE was driven out of Jaffna. Approximately 300,000 Tamils crossed over to the government side as the war ended. Most of them are presently living in camps set up in the Chettikulam area of the Vanni district.
There are also thousands of Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka to escape the ravages of war and are living in India, either in refugee camps or in freer conditions. There are also hundreds of thousands of Tamils, who migrated both legally and illegally, to escape the conditions prevailing in Sri Lanka, now living in the Western world. These are the `Externally Displaced Persons`, who are also the victims of the tragedy in Sri Lanka.
The concerns being expressed on the plight of the IDPs are largely centred on those in the camps in Vavuniya. The Muslim IDPs in Puttalam and the 25,000 IDPs in the East are rarely mentioned. Further, the `Internally displaced Sinhalese` are never thought of. The self-displaced Tamils living in the South are of course not considered `Displaced` at all. Our plans for the future should centre on all these people who were forced out of the places of residence and habitation by forces beyond their control.
Among the IDPs in Vavuniya are also thousands of men, women and children, who were participants in the war on behalf of the LTTE or were sympathetic towards its cause. Thousands have been identified and separated, while many more live amidst the IDP`s in the camps. How these people, have to be treated and dealt with should be our concern too. They are also `Displaced Persons` today and sooner or later have to find a place in society.
The recently displaced persons, who are living in the Vavuniya camps in large numbers and have been cleared of any LTTE involvement, of course should return to normal life, in their original habitations as soon as possible. There can be no dispute about this. However, when this is realistically possible is a subject of much debate, of a rancourous, ill-informed and emotional nature.
The conditions in the Vavuniya camps have been described as akin to those in Nazi-type concentration camps by many who have not seen these camps and interacted with the people there. The presence of LTTE cadres within these camps makes it imperative that the camps be fenced for security reasons by the government. LTTE flags have been hoisted within these camps occasionally! Our team has visited these camps twice and spent long hours there. On the first occasion we visited the Gamini Vidyalaya reception camp and the Kadirgamar IDP camp. On the second visit we visited the Kadirgamar camp and the Zone- 4 camp. We have thus seen the plight of these refugees as they arrived from the war zone and how the conditions in the camps have improved between our first and second visits. We were given the freedom to move around within these camps and interact with the people on both occasions. We also have spoken to the ministers, military officials, the government agent and camp officials, during our visits.
What we saw, heard and learnt are:
1. There are is no major disease out breaks in these camps as alleged.
2. Mortality rates in these camps are comparable to those in any normal society.
3. The malnutrition visible during the first visit had largely abated by the second.
4. The medical facilities within the camps are adequate and the sick have access to specialized care in the Vavuniya and Chettikulam hospitals. The more serious cases are taken to the Anuradhapura and Colombo hospitals.
5. There are skin ailments and cases of chicken pox. The IDPs, when arriving from the war zone already had skin diseases such as scabies.
6. No cases of rape by the armed forces were reported to us by the people we spoke.
7. The people were free to move around within the camps.
8. There were facilities for communal and individual cooking. Dry rations meeting international standards of basic nutrition are provided free at these camps.
9. The toilets constructed by the UNHCR and the tents provided by it, were unsuitable for the climate and circumstances. The government-built structures were more climate and people-friendly.
10. There are places allocated for visitors to meet the camp residents.
11. There are co-operative stores, schools, banks, libraries, temples and vocational training centres within these camps.
12. Adequate amounts of water are available in these camps for drinking and bathing. However, people have to take their turn to get their drinking water or to have a bath. There are plenty of tube well outlets and tap outlets. But each has to be shared by many families. This is an inconvenience rather than a problem.
13. The officials - civil, military and Police - were friendly towards the people and this was reciprocated. There was no visible tension between the officials and the people.
14. The camps are of course crowded, but this was not a cause for complaint by the IDPs.
15. People were engaging in small scale trade and had established their back yard gardens.
16. There was a special area for the Brahmin families, because they are vegetarians and have cultural and religious practices that are mandatory.
17. 54 NGO`s and INGO`s were working in the camps and providing services to the IDPs.
18. During our second visit in July, we observed that systems - trenches and drainage pipes - were being installed to drain water, in anticipation of the rains.
19. Although almost everyone we spoke to wanted to return to their homes and villages as soon as possible, there was no demand that this take place immediately.
20. Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, showed us details of plans to re-build damaged infra-structure in the war torn areas and presented us details of what had been achieved. He also answered our questions without any hesitation and in an open manner.
21. The people in the camps were relieved to have escaped from the horrible conditions in the war zone and were happy to be in a safe place.
22. The LTTE supporters, sympathizers and cadres within these camps are of course unhappy at the turn of events and can be suspected to be vocalizing exaggerated stories about the conditions in these camps. We have experienced these ourselves.
From what we had seen and heard, we are convinced the IDPs cannot be sent back to their places of residence immediately. The majority in these camps are poor, daily wage earners. They need the infra-structure to provide them employment, healthcare, schooling and welfare support. Farming and trading activities should be possible in these areas, soon after they arrive. There should be facilities to give long-term care for the psychologically and physically traumatized. These areas should be free of landmines and arms. The security of these people should be assured.
The long term interests of these unfortunate people should engage our conscience and financial resources, rather than scoring short-term political or emotional points. It should not be forgotten that although the conditions in these camps can be found fault with, they are much better than what would await these IDPs, if released from these camps immediately. These camps are temporary and the UNHCR demands they be temporary. The TNA demanded they be temporary, soon after the war ended. In fact the TNA accused the government of trying to establish new villages in these camps at that time! We cannot have it both ways.
Temporary camps will have their inadequacies and meant to be so.