/ 20 May 2009

The fight for survival goes on in Sri Lanka

The first accounts of the suffering of ­civilians during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka began to emerge from the camps where as many as a quarter of a million Tamils are being held behind barbed wire.

Men and women described how they were shot at by the Tamil Tigers as they tried to escape the so-called no-fire zone and how a hospital was repeatedly shelled inside an area designated by the ­government as a safe zone.

One health official claimed that as many as 15 000 people – including 2 000 children – had been killed in the past three months of fighting. The official, Siva, said he and his wife and two children, aged one and three, had been running from artillery fire for the past nine months, and had been displaced 13 times.

In the last three months inside the zone they had lived in bunkers that were home to between 15 and 20 people at a time. They were only able to stay in a bunker for a few days before they were forced to move on again — sometimes under ­pressure from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

He said a makeshift hospital set up in a school in Mathalan was shelled three times. He also claimed they were attacked with multi-barrelled rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and white phosphorus.

“I have seen people who have been affected by the chemical bombs. Their skin is burned. I am sure it was phosphorus,” he said.

Last week the Sri Lankan army released pictures which it claimed showed white phosphorus bombs planted by the LTTE around bunkers during their retreat. Tamil sources have countered with claims of white phosphorus use by the army.

Independent confirmation of the claims is not possible because journalists were barred from entering the area during the fighting. Both sides accuse each other of perpetrating atrocities and have denied their own involvement.

The stories of life in the no-fire zone came on the day that the Sri Lankan ­President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, declared the country “liberated” from terrorism and state television broadcast pictures of the lifeless body of what appeared to be the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Many Sri Lankans poured into the streets of Colombo, waving flags and ­letting off firecrackers as they celebrated what they clearly believed was the end of the 26-year-long war against the LTTE. But in Tamil areas of the capital the mood was more muted.

The interviews with civilians detained in the camps in the north of the country were conducted by a reliable third party whose identity is known to the Guardian. The names of those interviewed have been changed to protect their identities. Access to the camps has been restricted by the government.

“In the last four months, 15 000 people died, 2 000 of them were children,” Siva said. He said he had calculated the ­number from hospital records and from talking to doctors who were working there.

When his daughter fell ill in February, he arranged with the doctors for them to be taken out of the area by sea. He said he had not seen them since.

With no proper hospitals inside the no-fire zone, doctors put patients on ­mattresses under the trees, he said.

“One day in April it rained really hard. It started to flood. Those patients who were lying on the ground and who had limited mobility could not get up fast enough. Ten people died of drowning that night,” he said.

Siva described how, as the army advanced, the Tamil Tigers ordered him and the others in his bunker to move deeper into rebel-held territory.

He said the army finally broke through on April 24. “They had started shooting at the edges of the bunker and asked us who was inside. We screamed ‘podu janaya‘ [common people],” he said. As they were escorted away by the army, he said, LTTE fighters started firing at them.

At Iranapallakulam, the first military checkpoint, they were told to remove all their clothes so that they could be searched.

Later, at Oomandhai, people who were identified as LTTE were separated out and had not been seen since.

But he said the military had treated them well and with dignity. He said they had provided food and drink and had been polite. “We did not expect that,” he added.

Those who spoke to the Guardian also described dismal conditions inside the internment camps, where they said food, water and medicine were in desperately short supply.

One 58-year-old woman described how she had arrived at the Menic Farm camp, near Vavuniya, on April 25 with five of her eight children and four of her seven ­grandchildren, after wading chest-deep through water for three and a half hours to get to the army.

“It was horrible and very difficult. But I did it for my grandchildren. I wanted to get them to safety,” she said.

“We were only able to make it out with five of my children and four of my grandchildren. I don’t know what happened to the rest. During the shelling we got separated. When will I ever see them again?” she said, and started to cry.

Others in the camps described ­desperate conditions. Kothai said only those with money were able to buy access to water.

One of her children was sleeping outside the tent on a mat, covered from head to toe with a blanket to keep off flies.

“He has a very high fever, and a bad cough. He got sick because we are living in such an unhealthy environment,” she said.

“Things are really tough for us. My ­children are begging me for food and water. It is killing me to see us like this. We led such different lives. Why is this ­happening to us?”

David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, said Sri Lanka had a “historic” opportunity to build a lasting peace after defeating the LTTE, but it first had to tackle the humanitarian crisis.

He called for international aid agencies to be allowed full access to the camps and said Sri Lanka’s government, which he said did not “have the resources to cope” with the humanitarian challenge, had to be “magnanimous in victory”. — guardian.co.uk