Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Trincomalee, Vavuniya

Sri Lanka’s IDP camp Manik Farm is what it is (but what is that?)

Most of the arguments about Manik Farm (and other transit camps in the North of Sri Lanka) seem to get stuck on definitions and comparisons.  Is it a concentration camp?  Is it like the camps run by the Nazis or old colonial powers?  I believe these debates miss the most important question: what is the actual predicament of people who have escaped from the Wanni to be held in these camps?  Can we spend just a few minutes to really consider their situation?  Or does victory mean we do not need to know the cost of liberation and do not care what their new form of captivity means to those who have been newly ‘liberated’?

Family Separation
When people were fleeing the fighting, families were often split up.  When they reached the Sri Lankan forces, men and women were separated for screening and after that were herded into vehicles to be taken to transit camps.    Although they assumed they would be taken to the same camps and could find their loved ones again, they were often mistaken  On different days, people were taken to different transit camps, and even if they all escaped the shelling,  fighting and screening, they did not always end up in the same place. They hoped they could find each other, but since no one is allowed to leave the camps or even call anyone, they have no way of finding their children, husbands, wives, parents and other relatives.

The people in the camps don’t know if everyone in their family made it. They don’t know if anyone of their family was taken away as a suspect. Families don’t know what happened to those who were injured, and the injured lying in hospitals sometimes don’t know where the rest of their family are. There are even injured children in hospital who do no know where the rest of their family is or whether they will find them again. There are no lists in the camps, no central registers of displaced people and camp inmates, no up-to-date public records of which hospitals the sick and the injured have been transferred to in Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura or further afield.

Imagine if you were stuck inside a camp with no way of knowing whether your husband and child were alive or dead.  Whether your son had been taken away as a suspect during screening. Whether your wife in the hospital will be discharged to your camp or transferred to some other place.

After the tsunami the government services and UNICEF registered every single separated child and rushed to re-unite most children with their living relative. Now UNICEF and the government authorities do not even know the numbers of children injured, without limbs, separated from their families, or seriously sick and dead.

It’s not really the barbed wire itself that is the probem.  Picture fenced-off make-shift camps, with a extended boundary of rolls of barbed wire.  The perimeter is guarded by men with guns.  Men, women and children stand inside the inner barbed wire fence,  staring out for hours hoping that their relatives or someone who they know will come looking for them.  On the other side, across the road from the barbed wire stand others who have come to look for their relatives.  If they are lucky enough to spot their loved ones, they have to communicate with them through hand gestures or depend on the generosity of the guards to allow them to approach the fence.

Imagine those inside the camp clinging to that hope day after day as there is no other way of letting anyone know you are inside? Or you knowing if the others in your family made it and where they are?

Imagine not being able to make a phone call to anyone, not being able to talk freely to the few aid workers who are allowed to visit the camp. Imagine having a post office but not knowing by memory an address to which you could send a letter saying you are there. Imagine being a child who doesn’t know where to send the letter.

Imagine that when you fall sick the doctor cannot send you to the hospital, instead the military decides if you are sick enough to be sent there. Imagine being sent to  a crowded squalid camp after having a limb amputated, or the day after you have given birth (with your newborn child)  Imagine having your period and not having underwear. Imagine having no clothes to change into except the ones you escaped in. Imagine being given food which a Public Health Inspector has declared is not fit for consumption but you have no choice but to eat or starve.

Of course, the people in the camps don’t have to imagine this. They know exactly how it feels.

Victory and Defeat at What Cost?
I have one more question for us to consider for a moment. I will tell explain later why I ask this. Our media overwhelmingly supports the defeat of the LTTE. But what does defeating them mean? Should everyone in their ranks be killed? Doesn’t it matter that some of them were forcibly recruited as child soldiers a few years ago?  Doesn’t it matter that some of them may be forced to fight now?  Are we agreeing that it is perfectly acceptable that, while being screened, suspected people should be taken away to some unknown place without any record or any monitoring? How is this different to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or are these wars our models? It is not important that there may be mothers waiting for information as to whether their children are dead or not? We should also ask some questions about the soldiers in battle in the Vanni. What do their mothers and fathers, siblings and friends think when they are told their loved ones are missing in action or have died while fighting, or that they are going to be disabled for the rest of their lives? Is it unpatriotic to want to know the extent of this suffering and questioning whether this sacrifice will be worth it in the long run?

I recently met a woman who was told that she had to give one of her sons to the LTTE. She refused and she was taken away and imprisoned for many days. Her eldest son, who was 16, could not bear to see his mother treated like this,  and joined the LTTE so that his mother could go home and look after his younger siblings. This loving son is somewhere in the Vanni now and the woman prays to the gods that by some chance she will see him or hear from him again.

As things stand now, it seems like this may never happen. That is why I ask this question.