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

Truth, more bitter than fiction for IDPs in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, there are events in motion that have created just the perfect environment for “event-horizons”. An “event-horizon” in the movies is usually a black-hole where any hapless space faring vessel when caught, has to go through a slowing down in time. Hapless people caught in its fringes are unable to escape due to the pull of the black-hole. While it is possible to escape from these “event-horizons”, it usually is about someone else coming and rescuing. But mostly those caught in these “zones” are soon forgotten. Though time has not literally stopped, it nevertheless does run at a pace totally different from what is real. I am referring to the events none other than the conflict which is in full swing, and the hapless victims unable to break out of its pull.

Sri Lanka, specifically the North has been in the grasp of a black-hole for the past several years. Most of the time almost no information gets out, just like light is sucked into a black-hole. And now there are IDPs stuck in the event horizon. Their brave attempts to escape the black-hole ended up with them being stuck in “event-horizon” camps.

Imagine what will happen to your life if you have to just drop everything you are doing and run for your life. Possibly leaving behind your livelihood (farmers cannot take their land or livestock with them when escaping) and all other possessions, and being on the move with only the clothes on your back. Their lives have stopped, sucked down into a black hole. And when they attempt to escape the event itself, which a few of the lucky ones have at great cost, they find themselves trapped in this “event-horizon”. Now how has life slowed down or stopped for them here in the camps, where we in Colombo expect everything to be ok? I am sure they will be forgotten soon like the tsunami victims still stuck in camps.

Life is now at crawl pace for them. The “lucky-ones” are sent to government run, transit camps. The conditions: tarpaulin tents one per family, temperature during day time: 35C, trees to shelter under: none, tents with the height of 6 feet in the center for a person to stand up only in the middle. So they do not need to stay in those tents all day? But rather they must, for they have nothing else to do or nowhere else to go. Imagine us in those tents; we would not have tolerated even a few days.

Termed as temporary/transit camp sites, they are run with the help of the aid agencies. As they are international agencies, they state that they are responding to the situation in accordance with internationally recognized standards for temporary initiatives. While these standards would have been fine in another context, they are totally inadequate for the temporary long-term requirement (note the contrast between temporary and long-term). With the forecast being 1-3 years for many, the responses and interventions are ill-conceived and culturally inappropriate. This is seen by the response with regard to both food and shelter provided to the IDPs.

The construction of these camps take place by bull-dozing trees and all vegetation and then setting up the tarpaulin shelter that is provided to the displaced people arriving in Vavuniya. The shelters built in fact do not adhere to the minimum international standards in shelter, as described in the SPHERE Humanitarian Charter to which agencies committed themselves to adhere to.

Taking into account these standards, the majority of the shelters have too little space, too little ventilation, ceilings are too low and roofs are not made by the ascribed locally produced and culturally accepted materials (use of cadjun roofs would have been a better and cheaper option). No one stays in the tent during the day, although that is the time people want to shelter from the hot sun. At the moment some of these camps have buildings and trees at the transit sites (these are schools which are converted into camps). But the purposely built sites like Menik farm hardly have any trees (as said before the land was cleared by bulldozers to accommodate the IDPs, allowing just a few trees here and there to remain).

The IDPs cannot leave the area and find a shade to spend the day as they are confined by barb wire. In the absence of trees and shelter with tarpaulin roofs, the IDPs are left without proper protection against the sun and heat. It is equally inappropriate during the rainy season as it was seen in the past few weeks, since the water seeps through the tarpaulin sheet that is put to the ground and water also leaks through the roofing tarpaulin into the tent when the rain is heavy.

At the moment WFP is providing 1880 calories consisting of rice, wheat flour, dhal, 20ml oil and 20g of sugar, which is again below the SPHERE standard and the WFP/UNHCR/WHO/UNICEF minimal food requirement for emergencies and not adequate for IDPs who have been underfed and living under extremely stressful conditions for the past several months. Besides, in the Guiding Principles for Humanitarian and Development Assistance in Sri Lanka, all agencies have committed themselves to ‘work in response to the expressed wishes of local communities’ and to ‘respect the dignity of people, their culture, religion and customs’. It is not possible to make a culturally accepted Sri Lankan meal with the above mentioned food items.

However WFP does provide supplementary food (corn, soya blend) as part of their normal food parcel to families with pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under 5, but the total amount of Calories in the parcel will not exceed 2100Kcal (Standard nutritional need for SL according to the Government is 1900Kcal/per/day). Complementary food baskets have been given by some agencies, but the challenge they face is to sustain this highly expensive component for such a large number of people over a long period.

Possibly such low standards are forced upon these people because, in a frozen time frame, they would not need the minimum requirement?

Other Conditions
These are the direct problems in these welfare villages, but things like Chickenpox, Diarrhea, skin/eye infection, respiration problems which could have been controlled and stopped are now common and part of the simple package at these welfare centers. Poor water and hygiene conditions with cramped living conditions have contributed to this.

Privacy is a luxury that is ill-affordable (non-existent). People have to bathe in open spaces (that is if they are lucky to get enough water). Imagine you and I were asked to bathe in an open area where everyone can see, especially for women.

The Menik Farm type camps will not be different from the present school camps, which are not different from Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps (no freedom of movement for IDPs and no unrestricted access to humanitarian agencies). Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps in Mannar, have been operational for nearly a year and despite vigorous advocacy, the freedom of movement for civilians remains unresolved, unrestricted access to humanitarian agencies has not been granted. Finally after living and suffering long-term in these temporary conditions, the people of Kalimoddai begged an agency to provide them rigid/ semi-permanent shelters. Is Kalimoddai, a camp where time stood still, a model for all camps to follow?

So despite the rhetoric, everything looks geared for these IDPs to be held longer than the claimed 3 months. Many IDPs will remain in the Vavuniya/ Mannar area for a period of 1 to 3 years, until the screening process and de-mining is completed. Some senior government officials say that IDPs will have to stay in these camps for at least 6 months to 1 year, in order for the Vanni to be cleared of infiltration and mines. They say a full clearance must be done and once the Vanni is cleared, the regime will allow these people to resettle wherever they like. (Let us assume that where they want to settle in have not been turned into camps for other IDPs or the forces). So the way forward is clear, and that is forward to nowhere.

There are ‘sympathetic’ Government Ministers, Officials, Diplomats, Ambassadors, INGOs rushing around in their luxury jeeps and cruisers (Indicators of some crisis? But when the existence of a humanitarian crisis is downplayed by the Government, one wonders what they are doing). But the question is how much have they achieved in improving conditions (other than their own)? All the hotels are full of these people just a few kilometers away from the ‘welfare centers’. These diplomats and donors are enjoying luxurious meals in nice hotels and talking about the IDPs’ welfare while the people whom they talk about do not have proper shelter or food or water.

It makes everyone to wonder whether the humanitarian agencies are exploiting the IDPs’ situation for their own benefit. It could be justified as that it is part of the humanitarian business. However, it should be noted that the government does not have the money or resources without the help of these agencies. The government can say or show it in paper that they are providing everything for the so called welfare centers, but the reality and ground situation is that it is just a NATO (No Action Talk Only) scene. Whatever provided so far are mostly by the international donors, UN agencies and international agencies.

It needs to be mentioned that those few humanitarian agency officials who may want to actually help these people face a dilemma in terms of assisting these people vs supporting camps where unlawful detention is practiced. In addition, the regime has been manipulating agencies (using visas, security clearances and even fabricated negative media campaigns as tools) to achieve their political purposes and making the working environment of aid agencies extremely difficult (although the regime states the opposite in pubic).

Recently some Diplomats were heard saying “IDPs are well fed, well educated and well looked after. The children are receiving a good education and they lead a life free of danger in these camps until they are resettled in their villages”. One may wonder which IDPs they are referring to. We all know that these so called responsible ‘ambassadors’ of good-will are paid to be mouth pieces of their respective countries that they represent and these statements are reflections of political/economic agendas of these countries.

Who is responsible for this black hole of displacement, destruction of property and livelihoods, haplessness and the poor conditions faced by these people? The current regime and the hypocrites who are applauding the war and looking at blood shed and IDPs as an inevitable consequence of overcoming terrorism should look in the mirror and see. They are all living comfortable and selfish lives in the south, serving their own interest. They who can help do not lift a finger to help those in need, in what they proclaim is their motherland. They are quick to believe the propaganda of state media which is nothing more than a lie covered in a thin veil of patriotism. They point fingers at humanitarian agencies who even with all their imperfections are still keeping these IDPs alive.

Government contradictorily states they have no funds to help these camps and requests agencies to do everything for these people (except for some land clearance and community infrastructure done, where it is a known fact that certain ministers and their relatives made huge earnings); although in state media and with international diplomats they claim to fully take care of all the needs of IDPs. But one wonders how such a Government has sufficient funds to look after all the exorbitant needs and demands of their many ministers, spend on election campaigns and exhibitions such as “Dayata kirula”. Is the propagation of rhetoric where millions are spent, to meet their political and personal needs more important than the IDPs?

With the current situation for the camps and the up-coming un-official economic melt-down, the Government and the aid agencies are not capable to receive another 100-150,000 IDPs in the near future. Even for those who are already in the camps, they too will soon be victims of the ever growing black hole. The light of war victories and resulting celebrations and propaganda, will do nothing to these people. One wonders whether there is a single party that actually cares for these people who have been subjected to displacement due to war. Neither those who claim to be their liberators or those who claim to be humanitarian actors, nor those who claim to be their fellow citizens all who are sitting pretty in the Colombo and other un-affected areas of the country seem to honestly care.