Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

From the tiger’s den to an open prison

If we knew the government will put us in an open prison, we would not have come, it would have better to die in the Vanni” Man being held in Kallimoddai after fleeing Vanni to “cleared” areas

Last year, I had helped a boy from Killinochi who was arrested in Pettah and kept in inhumane conditions, worse than a caged animal, in Welikada Prison. Treatment that should not be given to even a convicted criminal, though in this case, the boy was a suspect, the basis for suspicion being him being a Tamil and coming from Killinochi. He had fled the Vanni, as he feared recruitment by the LTTE. But only to fall prey to Sri Lankan security forces and suffer inhumane and degrading treatment.

So where could he go in Sri Lanka to live with dignity and without fear? His face and desperate eyes behind bars came back to me as I met more people from Vanni facing a similar fate in a visit to Mannar last week.

In the frying pan….
Though I had not been to the Vanni recently, I have heard stories from people in the tiger’s den. How much people fear aerial bombardments of Sri Lankan forces, claymore attacks which the government and LTTE blame on each other, and the agonies of survivors and victim’s families. The lack of food, health and educational facilities. The difficulties aid agencies face in obtaining permission to take supplies to the Vanni to provide services and assistance to people desperately in need. Restrictions on freedom of movement, especially between the Vanni and other parts of the country imposed by the LTTE on civilian population, in a way similar to the restrictions imposed by government forces on the residents in Jaffna. I know a family from Mulativu, and when the father passed away in Jaffna, only one person was allowed to go to “represent” the children at their father’s funeral by the LTTE. The restrictions on freedom of expression, repression of dissent by the LTTE and the absence of any independent media or human rights groups operating openly. And how much people, especially young people and their parents fear forcible recruitment by the LTTE.

These were the experiences people I met in Kallimoddai had sought to escape. They had come from places such as such as Mullativu, Killinochi, Valappadu, Mullangovil, Nachikuda, Kalliady, Mallawi, Kovilkulam etc. Almost all had come by boat from the western coast of Vanni to Mannar. Many had spent most of their savings or borrowed money for a desperate boat trip from the tiger controlled Vanni to government controlled Mannar.

The journey to “cleared” areas
Last month, one morning, around 7am, when I was staying in a church in Mannar, a priest woke me up saying there was someone I should meet. I came down, and was met by a sweet little 9 year old girl going to school with a heavy school bag. Her family had fled the Vanni by boat, but the priest told me her grandmother, brother and sister were killed as their boat was shot at by Navy. She doesn’t know they have been killed, she thinks they are in India. She had survived with injuries, which she showed to me. Amongst her injuries was on to the right hand wrist, making it difficult for her to write. But she still goes to school. Her parents and another brother had also survived the shooting and the dangerous journey. 

I came to know through priests and a Grama Seveka that when people land in Mannar island, in areas such as Pallimune, they surrender to the security forces, they are questioned and sometimes detained for few hours or days, and released. Some said they had been provided food by security forces on arrival. Some young men have been sent to detention facilities in Boosa and Kandy. Last month, a friend from Mannar called me asking whether I could help a family who wanted to come to visit their son, who was detained on arrival from the Vanni and then sent for further detention to Kandy. Some families that had fled early this year, were already in Canada and England.

Into the fire…
But since March, it seems the situation had changed. People fleeing the dangers and difficulties in Vanni are wondering whether they had jumped from the frying pan to the fire, as the government had decided to imprison them in an “open prison” in Kallimoddai, Mannar. Before it had been mainly young men who had faced detention and harassment, but now, everyone – including pregnant women, infants, senior citizens, school children and university students are imprisoned.

I heard of two such families who had proceeded to Eruthu, and were subsequently brought back to a “camp” which many inmates as well as other people in Mannar described as an “open prison”.

Security forces seemed to have allowed some people to go out for few hours, but this had stopped when I was visiting. The reason being that one boy who had been given permission, was not able to come back the same night. I met the young man, and he told me he feels like committing suicide as he feels its his fault that people had lost even the semblance of freedom they had. In actual fact, he had not been able to come back as he couldn’t get a bus to come back in the evening (sometime back, security forces had ordered buses in Mannar not to operate after around 5pm), had informed some soldiers of this fact, and come back by 10am the next day.

Kallimoddai “open prison”
As I was coming out of the Kallimoddai camp where about 180 people are being held against their will by the government, I saw a snake that people had killed. That was the 4th snake that had been caught that morning. One man told me that there were days they catch about 50 snakes. The camp was several kilometers from the main Medawachiya – Mannar highway, accessible on gravel roads, away from basic facilities and surrounded by swamps and is snake infested.

Government officials and relief agencies had identified a suitable site for these people, but I came to know from both relief agencies and government officials that the security forces had overruled them and arbitrarily decided to hold the people in Kallimoddai, without any reason, despite it being pointed out that Kallimoddai was not a suitable place for people to live even temporarily.

Like many of the camps I had been visiting since last year in the North-East, people have problems about food, sanitation and other basic facilities. Some people told me that they didn’t have sugar or milk and the only assistance they were getting was cooked food from some NGOs. One woman said she has only one pair of clothes.

But the cry for freedom seemed overshadowed these problems.

Denied Livelihoods
Governments servants who are in the camp have not got salaries for several months since being held in the camp. There were also several teachers being restricted to the camp. Many are fisherfolk, some farmers, others traders – none who had been dependent on others economically. They had fled the tiger controlled Vanni seeking better lives for themselves and families in government controlled areas, but today, they face indignities and degrading treatment much worse than what they had faced in the Vanni. “We came to escape the LTTE. But we have been deceived by the government” said one women in tears.

Denied education
Many people who had fled the Vanni had done so out of fear that their children would be recruited as tigers, and with hopes that their children could continue their education. But education, though a right for students all over Sri Lanka, is being denied by the government to the children in the camp. I met several advanced level students studying in the Maths, Science, Commerce and Arts streams who are not able to continue their education due to being imprisoned in the camp. One student who is due to sit for the 2008 advanced level examination said she had sent her application, but not sure whether she could sit for the exam as she is not allowed to leave  the camp. I also met students waiting to go to university. There were also young children, including many of school going age.

Pregnant women
I met two pregnant women in Kallimoddai. The husband of one, made desperate pleas to get assistance for his wife, who was nine months pregnant and expected to deliver a baby around 30th April. The camp is certainly not a place for a soon to be mother, leave alone any human being. “The army recently took her to a hospital, but there was no check up and nothing happened” claims the husband, who had made many pleas to the security forces in charge of the camp to allow her to be taken for medical clinic. “Our sister is in Mannar, and we have a house there – if only we are allowed to go there, my wife can have proper check ups, and live comfortably and be cared for before giving birth” continued the clearly distraught and desperate husband.

Bride to be and separation of families
Another young girl had been planning to go to Jaffna to get married, and she had left the Vanni and come south, to go via the longer route, as the A9 road has been closed since 2006. “Everybody is waiting, and everything is arranged. And now, everybody is waiting for the bride! I don’t know when I can go and get married” said this smart young woman, a teacher, who spoke in fluent English with me.

This imprisonment is also preventing the coming together of families, and I heard stories of separated husbands and wives, as people in the camp are not allowed to visit and be with their spouses elsewhere.

When will they be free and who can set them free?
It is not easy, but not impossible to visit the Kallimoddai camp. The security forces asked whether there were any reporters in our group, asked us to not take photos (I wonder why, as this was clearly not a security establishment!) and to leave our cameras and mobile phones. We did so, and were not checked, neither were our identity checked and recorded. Indeed, they were quite polite and even offered us the few chairs they could find around. Unlike in other camps, they didn’t follow us around as we went around and spoke to people, and I did not hear of any beatings, threats by security forces. I saw a policemen engaged in friendly chatter and laughter with some people in the camp, some of whom could communicate with the Sinhalese officers in their own language. It was almost as if the officers there are also sympathize with the people being held, but can’t let them go, due to orders from above.

I and my friends were not the first one who had visited these people. NGOs, Church groups and UN agencies visit to provide assistance. Others from outside Mannar, like the group I was with, had also visited. But I had not seen or heard about the stories of these people in any mainstream media. Not even in the state media who takes pride in bringing to the attention of the country the repression these people undergo in the Vanni at the hands of the LTTE.

Telling their stories to the rest of the country and the world, to witness to the truth is certainly important. But I wonder what more we can do? “Several groups have visited us and we tell them our story. But nothing has happened. What can you do for us?” asked one man.

From our discussions with the security officers in charge of the camp and high ranking government officials in the district, it seems clear the decision to not to let these people free has been taken by the military and only the military establishment in Colombo could decide to let these people free.

I recall that not only state media, but many Sinhalese, including politicians, military officials, religious leaders and ordinary people frequently talk about “poor Tamils” caught in the grip of the tigers. Now in Kallimoddai is a group of these “poor Tamils” who had escaped from the tigers den.

Their request is very simple. “Let us live in dignity as human beings. Let us live in decent houses, with our families, relatives and friends. Let the children go to school and university, let us do some jobs to earn a living“.

When will these people be released from the snake infested open prison that is Kallimoddai? What will these people will do to ensure the freedom of these people? Who will take up their cause and talk on their behalf?

  • Ekcol

    Ruki,
    Below is my notes from Nov 1996. The difference between Chandrika/Ratwatte duo and Rajapakse brothers duo is that now the open prisons are isolated. 12 years back there were many camps in Vavuniya.
    “The camps in Vavuniya are not ‘welfare centres’ or refugee camps. They are Detention Camps. I was taken to a school named “Parakuma Maha Vidyalaya” at Irraperiyakulam from at pm on Nov 12, 1996, straight from Thankukulam crossing point. About six hundred people were in the camp sleeping in rooms, corridors, staircase landings and about 150 people slept under the tree and open grounds; people shared mats laid touching each other; log books were kept in Sinhala language; Only one person spoke Tamil or English; all were subjected to rude and abusive treatment ; 90% of the persons were not refugees; most of the adults were working for the government, university, schools or are students; people were allowed to go back to Vanni or to go to Jaffna only; half the men women and children were sick; there was only one toilet that did not function; we were given plastic shopping bag to defecate and throw it away near the toilet: two mothers gave birth in the camp the week before; I heard one mother asking permission to go to the hospital to have her csesarean as her first two-year old child was born under csesarean operation. She was to be given permission only if she and the new born came back to the camp after birth and her husband must continue to stay in the camp. The officer said he is following orders. Half the people did not get their mats, cups or plates. Food parcels were given three times a day, but only a few people lined up to receive them. They told me that if they ate, they have to go to the toilet more often. Everyone felt that their rights and dignity were violated because they are Tamils. We all were prisoners without any rights.”

    Those who are given permission to go to Jaffna via Trinco, and to Vavuniya or outside Vavuniya are taken to the “Koali Kudu” camp for further checking and clearing. It was near the Railway station. It was called Koali Kudu not because it resembled the accommodation for chickens but because it used to house chickens before ther are transported by rail to other places. It was crowded like poultry dens. One of my cousin and family stayed there for six months before being released. Another and many others were there for longer. They did give passes for the day to go into Vavuniya. One of the police Inspector who knew me said he is ashamed of the situation, but he is only following orders.

    I hope in another ten years you will not have the need to republish your notes!!! I wonder whether Tarsi Vittachi would have thought his book would have become a tale of horror of the past. Or the authors of 1983 would have thought, like me, that that was the last of it. I was wondering whether the Colombo journalist, who go on embedded tours to Jaffna to report, could ask the Defence dept to take them along on such tours to the camp and others like it you describe to take pictures and report? Dogs like us and the international teams of dogs will keep barking but the Sri Lanka caravan moves on towards the precipice!

  • Deshan

    This is what happens in a war. There are no wars that are nice and dandy; they cause death, suffering and pain. That is why they must be abhorred. The people who launched a violent campaign against the state to create a separate nation, and those who provided the means for it should realize what they have done.

    The Tamil community is worse off today than ever before. The LTTE is destroying the community from within, yet claims to fight for its benefit. What has happened to the Tamil community and what is continuing to happen to it should serve as a lesson for ethnic nationalists not only in Sri Lanka, but elsewhere in the world. Extreme Tamil nationalism has only served to destroy the community, rather than save it.

  • Bala

    I could be wrong, if I remember correctly in 1956 and 1977 there was no LTTE and if it wasn’t for LTTE, Tamils could have been wiped out in Lanka long time ago. For better or worse, at least now days Tamils have a safe place call Wanni, to go to if and when Sinhalese start their joy killing and looting of Tamils. I guess Tamils should have the habit of reminding Sinhalese how, when and why the whole mess started in the first place because most them seems to have amnesia before the creation of LTTE.

  • Exiled

    oh dear God, Bala, which planet are you in? haven’t you heard of the horrifying stories of people trying to escape Wanni? are you out of your mind to call it a safe place. It is true that the political thinking within the Tamils came to life due to the impact of the anti-Tamil riots of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983, the impact of the JVP insurgency in 1971 which induced Tamil youth in the universities to consider violence and the strandardization system introduced by Mrs.B in 1970 and it is true that the LTTE came into the scene around 1978 but the Sinhalese majority is not the only party to blame in the creation of this so called mess, the Tamils are equally to blame. The Vaddukottai Resolution which was put forward by the TULF proposed the State of Tamil Eelam which was to be won by NON-VIOLENT means (it is a known fact that Amirthalingam held that the resolution was adopted under pressure from the youth) and the consequences of what followed is due to the short sightedness of parties such as the TULF and the romantic notions of some Tamil undergraduates of Peradeniya Uni who began to imagine military structures and the creation of a PLO type rebel organisation. The crux of the matter is that the Tamils lost many opportunities for a political situation beginning from right before the independence, in 1929 with SWRD. So let’s stop blaming the Sinhalese for God’s sake and do some self reflection into our own shortcomings…

  • Appu

    If this person has to escape from LTTE, he could have surrendered to a camp of one of SL Forces. This is clearly defind by the govt.

    Why he spent money to come to all the way to Colombo.

  • dias

    The national condition is the collective reflection of a fractured people’s spiritual incapacity to give-and-take, compromise, improvise and simply be respectful of one another. What is needed are not sexy sounding new constitutional frameworks nor efficient re-engineering plans, rather, the cultivation of fundamental human values. Once common decency is imbedded within society most other aspects will naturally fall into place.

    The billion-$ question is how does one go about transforming a society from degradation to wholesomeness? [Certainly don’t expect the Buddhist Clergy hierarchy to provide this moral leadership, as they have been one of the key causes for the nation’s problems and not the solution.] The answer possibly lies in examining how other nations in similar situations have transcended the challenge. In similar historical conflicts in the United States, South Africa and many other places, a common denominator of social transformation – has been through pivotal “righteous leadership” – selfless leaders who emerged at the crucial times with the rare quality of wisdom, that is universal compassion and intelligence to influence everlasting change.

    It is unlikely that until similar leadership emerges from the internal fabric of Sri Lankan society, that the island’s wounds would be cured. Let’s hope that such a leader will soon emerge.

  • lasan de Silva

    Every paragraph has a very sympathatic story.But,only about tamil people getting killed and harresed by the Sinhales forces/Government or agents.

    No one is willing to tell what the Sinhalese and Muslims going through.They cannot even go and collect fire wood from the jungles which is free to collect in certain parts of the coutry.

    Untill the last Sinhalese and Tamil extreamists are disappeared from this erath.There is no peace to Sinhalese or Tamils in Sri Lanka.

  • It is a catch 22 situation for the government and the security forces. This is a victory for the LTTE as this is exactly what LTTE wants so that innocent Tamil people will not flee the area illegal held by the LTTE.

    The security forces have an obligation to protect the people of Sri Lanka especially in Colombo. I do not have to explain the reasons here as all the evidence are known to the whole world. Ruthless LTTE has no conscious for human lives except for their own families. For LTTE other humans (Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims) are born to serve their purpose and or serve them as they wish. If not they are to be destroyed. With this psychopathic ideology any government or security forces have to be suspicious of anyone belongs to the enemy in this case the Tamils.

    Under the circumstances it is difficult to completely criticise the security forces for some unjustified inhumane acts as outsiders see it. I am not here to endorse what has and is happening to these people who are caught between the two parties. At the same time time we have to look at the restrictions, limitations, pressure and fear the security forces goes through in protecting the innocent civilians of Sri Lanka from this barbaric, Psychopaths. LTTE very successfully has installed the fear psychosis in Sri Lankans far more than Hitler or Pol Pot. Also we have to investigate of other prisoners in Sri Lanka to see what conditions they have. What about the prisoners in Iraq and Gautanembe under US military?

    I have all the sympathy towards not only these suspects but all the unfortunate prisoners in Sri Lanka. Economically it is difficult to find better security and protection by the government. I wish that these do not happen to anyone. The only solution is to completely destroy the number one enemy of all Humans “LTTE and its Psychopath Killer Prabha”. He has no hesitation to use pregnant women and mentally ill innocent women as weapons to kill other humans including infants, elderly and women.

    Please be patient and support the forces to destroy this ruthless enemy of all Sri Lankans, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others.

  • Ruki,
    It is very unfortunate but this will be the way of life for tamil people and it is besummed up by DESHAN.

    BALA/Eckol,
    One must certainly will have to let go of the past. Two wrongs does not make one right. One can not dwel on the past for present actions as it will only bring greater misery to the people and that is what Tamil people of Sri lanka face.

    By trying to create an identity for tamils in SL, LTTE have miserably failed. Or else , RUKI would not be able to write sob stories.
    But as DESHAN has pointed out, those who provide means have brought upon this situation to Tamils in SL BUT have created an identity for themselves and
    riding on it.
    Therefore, the question remains is that THOSE who provide the means to the ltte to create an identity for the SL Tamils, are they sincere ??????
    Have Prabarakaran or the ltte been able to uplift the Tamil position in SL they embarked on to achieve ?????????
    Could they???? If they think they could & VP/LTTE are capable, them those SL Tamils will have to accept the present condition. This is a war made brital by ltte actions.
    If so, we will hear RUKI engaged in many sob stories which we do not want to hear that could have been prevented.
    There is no point blaming the Forces or the Rajapakses.
    They are dealing with a hidden enemy outside the Wanni who is identified by defence experts as a ruthless & innovative terror organisation.
    As such, the innocent suffering tamils of SL has unfortunately fallen within this equation.
    RUKI, we read enough sob stories. What you have failed to address is how we overcome this plague ????
    Now people have got immune to sob stories & it will be of not much help to the suffering tamil minority of Sri Lanka in future other than to those riding the tiger vehicle for their benefit from overseas.
    This is how pathetic the situation can get… Opportunism & Selfishness…

  • Priya fernando

    i do not understand the terrible hatred we seem to have of the Tamil people. We hate them so much that we rejoice in their death and suffering. All this to justify that one language or culture is better than another. So many of us yearn to live in prosperity as in the West. and other parts of Asia. However out in the wider world no one gives a rats A….. if one is sinhalese or tamil. We represent Sri Lanka and that is what is important. Lets work together towards peace and not be small minded so that we justify our barbaric behaviour of killing and hatred. In a global context, what can we achieve for Sri Lanka by every single Tamil in the world? I dont think this is what our religions teach us.

  • sham

    This is a sob story without iota of praticality in it.
    if the SL army is to give every one who surrenders to them without adequate checks the best way for the LTTE carders, to come to colombo would be to surrender and hitch a ride.

    imagine if if double agent was to come as a surrenderee and kill a another important surrenderee.. then potential surenderees wouldn’t belive that the army can provide protection and it would be a loss for the forces,

    why do u think G’tanamo bay is set up?/??

    how come this “ruki” gets to write such impractial stuff? what is the criteria used to select authors at this site?

  • nihal pathirana

    Ruki. you have a hidden agenda and motive to write about sobbing stories to gain international sympathy to this terrorist outfit all over the world dicrediting our soldiers who are doing yeomen service protecting the lives of innocent civilians both sihala tamils and muslims. Well if you go to Iraque majority of the people now say that we were better with Sadam Hussain than the present reigime similarly with afganistan. Where were you during 1971 and 89 JVP insurgency where more than 25 men in one cell with no sleeping accomadation. I think you should take a ride to some of these countries and see for yourself how we treat the TAmils.I suggest you to take a train ride from Rameswaram to madras you will get a clear idea how Tamils treat their own.The criteria of writing this stuff is to dicredit the govt so the UN would use the R2P doctrine. It seems to me the writer is on the pay roll of some org.

  • ange

    Thank you for your persistence Ruki when the rest of us have the luxury of reading 2nd hand reports from the comfort of our armchairs and pontificating.

    I’m sorry for your experience of witnessing what you did. I’m even more sorry for the people whose lives and sufferings we so casually use to slander one another.

  • ConnonFodder

    Really touching article. Makes one feel sad to the heel.

    But then you should listen to the stories of the Tamil asylun seekers in UK. British start weeping in the hearings.

    If we take all what hear

  • Deshan

    Bala,

    If it wasn’t for the LTTE, the Tamils would currently be in a much healthier position. Not only that, they would have enjoyed the sympathy of the world. Thanks to the LTTE and its violent campaign to establish a Tamil-only state, the Sri Lankan Tamil population has been reduced from around 12.6% of the Sri Lankan population to about 7-8%. Give it another 20 years and that will fall to around 3-4% of the population. Thanks to the LTTE over 100 000 Sri Lankan Tamils are internal refugees, and close to 100 000 are refugees in Tamil Nadu while over a third of Sri Lankan Tamils have left the country. Tamils like you can continue to support the LTTE all you want, but IMO it is destroying the community from within. It has single handedly destroyed democracy within the Tamil community. The LTTE is like a glowing ember for the Tamil community. You pick it up to ‘defend’ yourself agains the ‘evil’ Sinhalese and regard it as your wonderful weapon but it is burning your hand as you hold it. Hatred of the Sinhalese keeps you from realising the damage it is causing you.