Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Vavuniya

An eye-witness account of IDP camp conditions in Sri Lanka

[Editors note: The dire conditions of internment in camps that are home to well over a quarter of a million fellow citizens are unknown to many. Fears of inflammatory and inaccurate journalism, as defined and seen by the government, debar independent media from access to these camps even after the end of war.

Rohini Hensman’s exclusive article to Groundviews on the plight of the IDPs and Malinda Seneviratne’s pointed counter based on his experience in the camps, as well as the responses to both articles provide the framework of reference for this compelling eyewitness account of conditions in Menik Farm.

This is an unedited account, posted here without verification. Corroboration and competing perspectives are invited from Government, I/NGOs that have had limited access to IDPs, the few journalists who have been to these camps and others who may know of other first hand accounts of camp conditions such as this one in Sinhala.

Based on the belief that the free flow of information in the public domain, especially after war’s end, is a cornerstone of democracy, Groundviews will continue to publish content that stimulates policy and action to ensure the safety, security and above all, human dignity of fellow citizens languishing in these camps.]


An Eyewitness Account

Condition from camp to camp varies. Zone three is comparatively better of the camps. In Zone 03 the shelters that in front are better but as you walk further and further in, the conditions are not the same.

Even in Zone 03 the water is scarce and the day we went the people had received rice and sugar but no vegetables nor any complementary items to cook the rice with. Brigadier Weerakone who was in charge of the camp was requesting NGO s to provide vegetables as the inmates were not receiving this. Another issue of concern was that there were families in Zone 3 who were separated (for example we met a mother and 2 daughters in Zone 3 and they said the father and the other daughter are in Zone 2). This separation is a serious issue and so far authorities have taken any productive step to reconnect the families.

Zone 2 was quite congested and they were making arrangements to move some of the IDPs to the newly created Zone 5. Here in Zone 2 the NGOs were providing food for community cooking.
There were serious allegations of corruption here as one of the GS (a Tamil) was in the habit of taking what comes to the IDPs for other purposes. Some of the leaders among the IDPs who raised the issue were threatened that they would be the first to be separated and taken to Zone five. Corruption seems rampant in these camps sadly by Tamil officials who are the GSs.

Water queue were seen everywhere. We saw a child scooping water from a filthy muddy drain and take it to their tent. Small buckets, hundreds would be kept in a line near a water source waiting for the water to arrive. There was dirty water running on both sides of the road where drains have been freshly cut.

Flies are rampant and hygiene is a life-threatening issue. The flies are so infinite we saw merchants sitting inside make shift nets and selling things.

Toilets were inadequate. In one camp we saw some of the tents having been removed and this area was being used as open defecating areas. On both sides of the road you could see human waste. We stopped the vehicle to take photographs but the stench was too overpowering for us to stay long. This was in close proximity to where people were staying but in a vacant area .

Zone 4 was the area where the final batch of IDPs who came out are being housed. This is a high security area and inmates are those who were in the vanni in the last stages of the battle. Most of them are heavily traumatized. We saw a child almost bathed in sand. Water again was a major problem here. Living conditions in all camps need to be definitely improved.

Unquestionably there is no freedom of movement at all to these IDPs. They are being kept like prisoners. Many of them have well to do children and relatives in other parts of the country with whom they can stay. We saw an official who works in Colombo had come to see his mother. He drives a luxury vehicle and looks as if he is from the upper strata of the Sri Lankan Tamil society. His mother looks like an impoverished beggar living in the IDP camp malnourished.

There is no registering of people in a transparent manner. Hence even if people disappear there is no way to trace them. The separation of family members (I stress here) is a very grave concern.

Access is not given to NGOs to talk to the IDPs. You go in, give the food and get out. You are not even supposed to take your mobiles in or give the IDPs the use of it. There is an epidemic of chickenpox and hepatitis and other diseases in the camps.

Three of our colleagues who walked with open shoes working in the camps had various foot diseases. One had to have both his toe nails removed. The other had holes in his sole and is being treated. The third has a rash and infection which makes him walk with a limp. If this is the case with volunteers working in Manik farm you should be able to imagine the plight of the IDPs who don’t even have a pair of bathroom slippers to wear. I saw a child wearing a footwear made out of hardboard and elastic and another one covering his feet with plastic bags.

The other issue is the Militarisation of the camps. Camp management need to be handed over to the civil administration. When cutting of trees, moving tents or relocating tents the soldiers are standing with their guns and making the IDPs do the hard labour. This should be done voluntarily by the IDPs rather than making it look like bonded labour.

Other needs are clothes. IDPs are in desperate need for change cloths. People kept asking us especially girls for clothes. There has been distribution of clothes but hardly adequate. Children, pregnant mothers, lactating mothers, infants and the elderly need special care.

Daily people die some time more than 5 -10 a day, mostly children and elderly. This is due to disease, malnourishment etc. The malnourishment did not happen necessarily in the camps. Even in the Vanni they had been near starvation and the journey has made them weaker. To bring a body to Vavuniya they are charged around Rs. 10,000. A few weeks back a pregnant lady committed suicide in one of the toilets.

The LTTE detainees are housed in different locations. There are separate camps for boys and girls. There are around 9000 boys and 2000 girls. Access to this camp can be obtained with defence ministry’s approval only. They are looked after quite well except when they protest or get aggressive. The girls need a change of clothes, normal amenities such as soap, toothpaste, sanitary ware etc.

The problem is that they need regular supplies and the whole day they idle. There are also many wounded girls in the camp some of them are disabled already. They need special medical attention. This is true of the boys too.

Also the hard core LTTE detainees and those who had gone for even two days training, those who had run from the LTTE, come back to their homes and got married etc. They are all in one camp. Those married have been separated from their spouses. There were 37 pregnant girls among the detainees. They had left the LTTE and got married but due to the rule that any one who underwent training needs to surrender they are all now kept as LTTE detainees.

The cry of both the boys and the girls were to see their parents, husbands and wives etc. Even for a few minutes they pleaded. The cry to connect socially to their kith and kin was heard every where. This was pathetic. The boy’s camp had an epidemic of chickenpox and typhoid. They asked for medicines stressing that they had trained doctors among themselves.

There 35,000 children in the camps and out of which around 1,800 are orphans. Below are some of the pressing issues which were shared at a recent meeting on these IDPS:

  1. Freedom of movement and host family options- -i.e. many families have relatives, children they can go and stay with. Yet they are forcibly kept in the camp.
  2. Systematic and transparent registration- names of IDPs are not registered presently.
  3. Transparent screening and feedback to family
  4. Family Reunification: Family are separated (father and one child in one camp and mother and other children in another zone).
  5. Civilian nature of administration- presently the camp is administered by military personnel.
  6. Right to information
  7. Ability for aid agencies/NGO s to talk to the displaced

These are some of the advocacy issues that should be looked at in the next several weeks and these should be revisited in order to ascertain what progress have been made on these issues.