Sri Lankan No-Fire Zones and IDP Camps

International Community Should Protect Tamil Civilians in War-Torn Sri Lanka

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, May 2009 (ID. 2009-05-01)
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OUTLINE

Abbreviations

1. No-Fire Zones and IDP Camps

2. A Two-Phased Approach to Protect Tamil Civilians

3. Phase1: Protection of Tamil Civilians in the No-Fire Zone and IDP Camps

3.1 Evacuation of the No-Fire Zone
3.2 Protection of Tamil People in Sri Lankan IDP Camps
3.3 Safety Net for Sinhalese, Protective Cover for Tamils

4. Phase 2: Peaceful Resolution and Normalization

ABBREVIATIONS

IDP - Internally Displaced People (people who are refugees in their own country)

NFZ - No-fire zone

UN - United Nations

USA - United States of America

1. No-Fire Zones and IDP Camps

Over quarter million Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka are under grave risk. Some of them are in the so-called "no-fire zones (NFZ)" or "safe zones" declared by the Sri Lankan government and the rest are in the so-called "welfare villages" or IDP camps set up by the Sri Lankan government. [IDP - Internally Displaced People]

It is well documented by international humanitarian organizations that the Sri Lankan army shells indiscriminately at the no-fire zone where over 100,000 Tamil civilians live under crowded conditions in about 20 square kilometers. Even the hospital in the NFZ is shelled repeatedly by the Sri Lankan military. There is severe shortage of food and medicine too to make things even worse. 

Tamil civilians who come out of the NFZ into Sri Lankan military controlled areas are put into what the government calls "welfare villages" surrounded by barbed wire fences. Except for a few elderly and sick, no one else is allowed to leave these "welfare villages". It is essentially an open prison for about 250,000 Tamil civilians coming out of the NFZ.  Sri Lankan government has drawn a black curtain around these welfare villages with no access to anyone except for a few relatives (key phrase is "a few"). Reporters and international humanitarian groups were not allowed access at all except in a few guided tours by government officials. 

Human Rights Watch reported of "drastic shortage" of food, shelter, water and sanitation supplies in these camps. It added that people [Tamil civilians] are "held indefinitely in army-run prison camps". It also said, "The government's 'welfare centers' for civilians are just badly disguised prisons." One international aid official likened these camps to Nazi concentration camps. 

Also, God only knows how many Tamil men and women are tortured and murdered by security personnel in the name of interrogations, and how many young Tamil women and girls are raped simply for the amusement of Sri Lankan Sinhala soldiers, paramilitary and police. We know of abductions and disappearances of Tamils in the capital city Colombo in broad light and no prosecution of personnel involved. Rape of Tamil women abducted at security posts and in prisons also been reported over the years. With total blackout of what is happening inside these welfare villages, God only knows how many have suffered rape, torture and murder. There is no openness; there is no accounting to what goes on in these internment camps called "welfare villages". [More information on the situation in the no-fire zone and in the IDP camps  may be found on the Internet from unbiased international media and human rights groups.]

2. A Two-Phased Approach to Protect Tamil Civilians

This proposal consists of a two-pronged first phase to be implemented immediately and a second phase to be implemented within a year. First phase deals with the immediate need for protection of Tamil civilians in the no-fire zone and IDP camps. This two pronged approach consists of: (1) Evacuation of people in the no-fire zone to camps run by United Nations, (2) Take over of the IDP camps run by the Sri Lankan government by United Nations in order to protect the Tamils there. The two prongs should happen simultaneously. The second phase deals with a peace settlement and return of Tamil civilians from the United Nations camps to their villages. The second phase should be implemented within a year. These camps should not become semi-permanent for decades.

3. Phase1: Protection of Tamil Civilians in the No-Fire Zone and IDP Camps

3.1 Evacuation of the No-Fire Zone

There were reports a few weeks ago of evacuation of the no-fire zone by American military, and moving the people to IDP camps run by Sri Lankan government. There was reportedly opposition from the Indian government of American (USA) involvement. This writer is supportive of the evacuation of the no-fire zone by America provided the evacuated people are moved to a camp outside Sri Lanka for a year. How can we evacuate people from the horrors of the no-fire zone and send them to the horrors of the IDP camps run by Sri Lankan government? It is like taking something from the frying pan and putting it in boiling water.

A suitable location for such a camp is Tamil Nadu in southern India. The camp must be run by United Nations and the people in the camp should be under UN protection and care. Also, the camp should be for a duration of one year only and western democracies should take responsibility for bringing about a peace settlement within one year so people can return to their own villages and rebuild their homes and lives under funding from the international community through humanitarian agencies. (More about a peaceful settlement is discussed in Section 4.)

3.2 Protection of Tamil People in Sri Lankan IDP Camps

As discussed in Section 1, Tamils in Sri Lankan IDP camps not only live in squalid conditions but the young Tamil men and women are in grave danger from Sri Lankan soldiers, paramilitary and police. United Nations should immediately take total control of these camps and people in these camps should come under the direct care and protection of United Nations. In Bosnia there were camps under UN protection although Bosnian Serb military did enter the camp and took some civilians away. The entire Kosovo came under the protection of NATO forces because of the grave danger to Kosovo residents from Yugoslavian army. If the Sri Lankan government has legitimate reasons to question (interrogate) anyone, Sri Lankan security could be given access. Interrogations should be conducted in the presence of international observers and those suspected of crimes should be tried in open courts with access to media. This is the only way we can expect justice and fair play for Tamils in Vanni.

3.3 Safety Net for Sinhalese, Protective Cover for Tamils

We do know that Sri Lankan government would not transfer control of these IDP camps to United Nations willingly. Extreme pressure would be needed. We thought that Nazi concentration camps were the last of its kind at the end of the Second World War. Then we saw on television a glimpse of the horrors of the Bosnian concentration camps. A glimpse of the skeletal bodies of men in those camps and bodies of murdered young Bosnian men in secret mass graves. Western public was appalled by these images, the governments acted and finally the nightmare of internment camps and secret mass graves ended.

No video footage of Sri Lankan IDP camps seems to be available because Sri Lanka had closed the camps to the rest of the world. Yet, based on Sri Lankan security forces' past record and the limited knowledge of "disappearances" that occur even today in Tamil areas of Colombo and Jaffna, we can extrapolate the horrors of these IDP camps. When there is forest fire in a remote jungle, trees get burnt down even if there was no one to see and report. Rapes, tortures and murders do occur in the IDP camps even if there are no outside witnesses to report.

The international community gave a "safety net" to the Sri Lankan government at the beginning of the 2002 ceasefire, now it should at least provide a "protective cover" for the Tamils in IDP camps.

4. Phase 2: Peaceful Resolution and Normalization

International community, especially western democracies, should take responsibility to bring about a peaceful resolution that will allow Tamil people to run their own affairs with safety and dignity. After all, this was what America, European Union and others who started the peace process in 2002 promised. Peace talks should be time-limited (one year?) and conducted under third party mediation (not facilitation). We want to point out that Tamil people wanted Norway to act as mediators in 2002 but it was the Sri Lankan government that opposed it and agreed to a watered-down facilitation. Northern Ireland peace talks or Kosovo talks could be a model. The settlement must be ratified by the people of northeastern Sri Lanka by vote. It is the oppressed minority that should ratify the settlement and not the majority community that may want to keep the hegemony over the minority.

I pray to God that peace reigns in Sri Lanka soon and the minority Tamil community that has suffered so much in the past decades can live in peace with honor.

Thanjai Nalangkilli

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