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

A thought for the stranded refugees in Vanni

I wish to draw wider public attention to the following extract appearing in “A short note from the Vanni” written by “Witness” and appearing in the Groundviews on September 30, 2008:

“The people now staying at Vattakachi and Tharmapuram areas are requesting to announce these areas as “safe zones” for the civilians. Food and shelter are desperately needed, as people are suffering without anything to eat and nowhere to rest.”

I can visualize the pathetic situation vividly as I personally watched a similar scene in 1996 when refugees marched back to Jaffna from Kilinochchi. Unfortunately, the above revelation has failed to attract sympathetic attention to the miserable plight of the refugees in Vanni today. Instead a barrage of comments has followed on the larger issues of our ethnic conflict defending and condemning positions taken by parties on both sides.

The on-going debate cannot reduce an iota of the present suffering of the refugees. Our indignation over political inequities often takes precedence over our sympathies for those affected by such injustice. Similarly, our appreciation of the spoils of war is also insensitive to the immense human suffering caused to hapless persons caught up in the cross-fire.

The greatest need of the hour is to grant relief to those who are reported as being driven from pillar to post in the battlefields of the Vanni. As a former public servant, I feel strongly also for my successors who are exposed to grave personal danger and deprivation in the performance of their duties amidst the fighting.

I think the root-cause for the pathetic plight of the refugees is the decision to bring them down all the way to areas of government control. The situation was different after ‘Riviresa’ as the return track to Jaffna was continuous, open and secured. The LTTE itself exerted no pressure against the return march. In the present context however, resistance of the LTTE to an exodus from the Vanni, has to be expected.

The returnees of Riviresa had just been to Vanni and had not had time to settle down. Most people in the Vanni now are natives of the district. Others who have migrated from Jaffna have had over ten years to settle down. It is normal human nature that people are reluctant to seek strange territory. Naturally, they may also be scared of moving too far out through the battlefields all the way to Vavunia.

If a Safety Zone can be created as requested by the refugees, as close to their homes as possible in an area mutually agreed to by both sides, it would be easy to concentrate the affected civilians in that area. Public servants also can move in there to help without facing limitless risks themselves. UN and other aid agencies too can operate from the hub of relief activity, without resorting to remote control.

I appeal to the UN, NGOs and INGOs concerned with human rights to take immediate positive steps to negotiate with the Government and the LTTE, to bring about a self-contained and independent Safety Zone as desired by the destitute refugees in Vattakachchi and Tharmapuram. I shall be glad to offer my personal experience and expertise to such a venture, if necessary, at site.

At the going rate, the Vanni refugees’ last resort is likely to be the Indian Ocean, unless those morally responsible for their safety and wellbeing, act forthwith to ensure to them, a safe haven

Somapala Gunadheera.