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?