Months after Sri Lanka’s government declared victory over the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, nearly 300,000 people remain displaced by the civil war that lasted 26 years. President Mahina Rajapaksa claims the displaced will be able to return home by the end of January.
Amidst mounting criticisms about conditions, a United Nations human rights expert visited camps in the northern part of the country on Friday.
Bart Beeson, a freelance journalist and campaign organizer, and Annalise Romoser, a freelance journalist focused on human rights and rural development, describe the predicament at World Politics Review.
Everywhere in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, posters featuring smiling soldiers holding rocket launchers and machine guns celebrate the recent end to the nation’s 26-year civil war. But in the government-run camps that still house more than 250,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the war’s fighting, the mood is far from celebratory.
In late August, heavy rains at the largest camp, Manik, flooded tents and led to unsanitary conditions. According to aid worker K Thampu, “The situation was heartbreaking. Tents were flooded and mothers, desperate to keep their children dry during the night, took chairs and tables from school facilities for them to sleep on.”
Rains also caused toilets to flood, with worms covering large swaths of ground near latrines, says Thampu. At stake, according to local experts, is not only the immediate welfare of camp residents, but chances for long-lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
Most of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have been living in the camps since May, when they fled the intense fighting that marked the final battle between government forces and the insurgent group known as the Tamil Tigers. Publicly, the Sri Lankan government has committed to returning IDPs to their homes by November of this year, and several thousand people have been released from camps to live with relatives. But the government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa also maintains that others must remain in camps until the area around their former homes is cleared of mines. At the same time, government representatives are slowly screening camp residents to identify former combatants.
Aid workers and local experts agree that the government must move quickly, for several reasons. The most urgent among them is monsoon season, which starts at the end of September and will only exacerbate the already difficult camp conditions. More tents and toilets will flood, increasing the risk of communicable and mosquito-born diseases.
“We saw how bad things got after the recent rains, which only lasted 3 or 4 days,” says Thampu, who works for the Baltimore-based humanitarian organization Lutheran World Relief. “Imagine how bad they will get once the monsoons are upon us.”
In addition to the rains, long-standing tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese-led government remain, even if the armed insurgency has been defeated. Many worry that if the government does not act quickly to return people to their homes, it will lead to new problems in northern Sri Lanka.
Thampu says that many teenagers in the camps are already frustrated. “Young people have told me, ‘We have no freedom to talk, no protection, no education, no recreation and no employment! Everything looks like hell in our life. What do we have to live for?'”
Despite living in a warzone, many teenagers were able to pass the university entrance exams. But now they cannot leave the camps to begin their studies. Thampu adds, “Victory has been declared, but what does that mean for them? It is important to give them a new start in life.”
According to T Thevathas, another aid worker in Manik Camp, “Peace and security in the north is the most important thing to consider. People have been waiting 30 years for this, but IDPs in the camps feel no security and have no peace of mind despite the government’s victory.”
Thevatas notes that for real advances to be made in the north, it is crucial for Tamils in the camp to feel that the national government is working on their behalf. “At this point,” he says, “IDPs have placed all their hopes for return on local governments and the international community.”
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