Greener grass on this side

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Fear of Sinhalese reprisals and military excesses is forcing Sri Lankan Tamils in India to make difficult choices, reports PC Vinoj Kumar

The settlers Devi (left, in red), a refugee at the Madurai camp, with her neighbours and relatives
The settlers Devi (left, in red), a refugee at the Madurai camp, with her neighbours and relatives

ON MAY 19, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa stood up in Parliament to announce the end of the three-decade-long civil war between government forces and Tamil rebels. He said his government had liberated all areas under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). “When the people handed over this country to me (in December 2005) the LTTE had control over 15,000 sq km or one-fourth of the territory of this country, and two thirds of its coastline,” he said. “Today, we have finished all that forever,” he stated and also renewed his appeal to the Tamil diaspora to return to Sri Lanka. “I call on all who have left our motherland due to terrorism, especially the Tamil people, to return.” Rajapaksa had made a similar appeal during his Independence Day speech on February 4 this year.

Photos: Kiran

If he was expecting a reverse exodus of Tamils to Sri Lanka, he must be disappointed. The Tamil diaspora has given him the cold shoulder. The Tamils who organised huge rallies worldwide in support of the LTTE have not given up hopes of the Tamil homeland, Eelam, that the LTTE fought for. Few have plans to return to Sri Lanka. Tasha Manoranjan, a young US Tamil, who organised a fast for peace in Sri Lanka early this year, said Tamils in Sri Lanka had no safety. “For years, Tamils have felt protected and shielded from Sinhalese excesses by the existence of an armed Tamil group. Now, Tamils no longer have this protection and no longer feel safe in Sri Lanka,” she told TEHELKA.

About 10 lakh Sri Lankan Tamils are in exile in different parts of the world. Nearly 4 lakh are in Canada and about 3 lakh are in the UK. The rest are scattered in the US, Australia and in some European countries. Tamil migration from Sri Lanka started after a bloody anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983, when about 3,000 Tamils were killed. Between 1983 and 1987, around 1.35 lakh refugees poured into Tamil Nadu by boat. Though some returned whenever fighting eased between the LTTE and the army, a fresh influx would begin when the conflict flared up. While few arrived between 2002 and 2005, when a ceasefire was in effect, as the war escalated from 2006, over 20,000 refugees arrived in Tamil Nadu.

ACCORDING TO information obtained by TEHELKA from the state’s Department of Rehabilitation, there are 1,01,086 refugees in Tamil Nadu. While 73,600 are housed in 113 government-run camps, 27,467 are living outside camps and are registered at police stations; about 101 suspected militants are detained in two special camps.

TEHELKA asked the refugees about any plans of accepting Rajapaksa’s open invitation to exiled Tamils. Though there have been valid complaints about the general condition of these camps, which are out of bounds for the media and NGOs, for most refugees, Tamil Nadu has become their home. In most camps, there is shock and disbelief about the manner in which the LTTE lost the war. Few believe Prabakaran is dead. Far from what Rajapaksa would like them to think of the LTTE, many view the LTTE as a movement for liberation and consider its defeat as a misfortune for Tamils. “If Prabakaran is really dead, our people are going to suffer more oppression,” says 52-year-old Selvanayagam at the Gummidipoondi camp near Chennai. Selvanayagam, who has a bicycle repair shop in the camp and has been in India since 1990, feels that only an armed struggle will solve the ethnic conflict. The thought of returning has not entered his mind, he says.

Many in the camp echo his views. Clearly, the dream of Eelam that Prabakaran ignited among the Tamils has not died with him. Twenty-seven-year-old Krishna, who takes us around a kindergarten school at Gummidipoondi camp is hopeful that some day the Tamils would have their own nation. “All of us live in hope. If Gandhi had not dreamed, India would not have freedom,” he muses.

Some are not so optimistic. The LTTE’s defeat has shattered them. “Now there is nobody to speak for the rights of the Tamils. It is difficult to live with the Sinhalese. They won’t give us our rights,” laments 49-year-old Devi at the Aanaiyoor camp in Madurai. Devi has lived here for nearly 20 years now. Though living on Indian government dole and lacking basic citizens’ rights, Devi has no plans to return. None of the refugees this reporter spoke to had a different view. Rajapaksa might have won the war against the Tamil Tigers, but has clearly failed to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils.

Everyone dreads the Lankan army. Fifty-seven-year-old Sivapackiam from Vavuniya says the army is now camping in the fields her family once cultivated. “Ours is a large family. If we return, we will have to rebuild our lives from scratch. All of us have small jobs here,” she says. Moreover, she is scared that her three sons, all of whom are employed in India, would land up in army custody if they returned.

Sivapackiam is wiser from the experience of other inmates, who had earlier returned to Sri Lanka during the ceasefire, thinking that peace had returned to the island. There are at least 15 families in the Madurai camp, who went to Sri Lanka and returned again as refugees.

The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR), an NGO run by and for the Sri Lankan refugees — the only such NGO working among the refugees — conducted a meeting of representatives from about 70 camps at Trichy in June to hear their opinion on returning home. M Sakkariyas, an OFERR official told TEHELKA that all of them felt they would consider returning only if Sri Lanka first rehabilitated the three lakh Tamil refugees in its camps. “They wanted Sri Lanka to offer a federal solution [which Rajapaksa has rejected] and a guarantee from the Indian Government of their safety in Sri Lanka before they returned,” Sakkariyas said.

JUST BECAUSE no refugee wants to return to Sri Lanka, it does not mean they are happy in India. Most are living miserable lives. Their camps lack basic amenities. Till 2003, the government reserved 20 seats for Lankan refugees in medical colleges. That reservation has since been scrapped. “Sruthika, a girl from Erode camp, scored 1,077 marks out of 1,200, but she hasn’t been able to get a medical seat. Anna University rejected a B.Tech application from Arul Prakasan, who had scored 1,065 marks, on the grounds that he was not an Indian citizen,” says VMP Nehru, a non-camp refugee, who now mobilises funds from prominent politicians, actors, and industrialists to provide financial support for students to get seats in private medical and engineering colleges.

Guarded gaze A Tamil refugee girl peers from a tent in a military-run camp in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka
Guarded gaze A Tamil refugee girl peers from a tent in a military-run camp in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

However, the Tamil Nadu government gives monthly doles and highly subsidised essentials to refugees – rice at 57 paise a kilo and Rs 400 to every man and Rs 300 to every woman. Inmates can also work in India. Many refugees lead a comparitively settled life in India. Though spartan, the conditions of the refugees, appears favourable compared to the reports from Sri Lanka, where people are kept inside barbed wire enclosures.

Rajapaksa may have defeated the Tamil Tigers but has not won the hearts of Tamils

Sri Lanka is finding it hard to convince the refugees to return. While the Lankan deputy high commissioner in charge, MK Pathmanaathan stated that 20,062 temporary travel documents had been issued to refugees between 2002 and May 2009, V Jayakumar, deputy director for Tamil Nadu’s Department of Rehabilitation told TEHELKA that only 5,706 refugees had returned to their country in this period. Refugees told TEHELKA that many obtained travel documents but did not return. They felt that the commission had tried to imply that more people had returned than was the case.

Even as Rajapaksa is inviting Tamils back, they continue to leave the country

In fact, even as Rajapaksa is inviting Tamils back, they continue to leave Sri Lanka. According to information available with TEHELKA, 143 Tamil refugees arrived in Tamil Nadu in June and 46 more arrived up to July 15. However, there are Lankan Tamils who argue that Rajapaksa should be given an opportunity to keep his promise of finding a solution to the ethnic issue. “The conflict has dragged for 30 years. Why not wait for another year to see if he keeps his promise?” asks SC Chandrahasan, founder of OFERR and son of popular Sri Lankan Tamil moderate leader SJV Chelvanayagam. That is also the period that LTTE remnants are looking at to form the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, with the support of a few western countries.

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A Lankan Lament

PC Vinoj Kumar lays out the conditions of existence in Sri Lanka’s ‘welfare villages’ for Tamil refugees

Do I know what it means / To stand in the queue as a mere 13 year old, / Collecting charity for my younger brother / and widowed and aching mother, / a wound in my stomach which hurts and oozes. / With no one to care for the pain / To live on, not knowing why or the reason or meaning of hope…”

Aftermath Refugees near tents in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons near Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka
Aftermath Refugees near tents in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons near Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka
Photo: AFP

THESE ARE the opening lines of a poem by Sumathy R, who worked as a volunteer for a few days in a Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka. She describes the travails of the destitute and the orphans living in army-controlled camps According to reports, about three lakh Tamils displaced from erstwhile LTTE-controlled areas by war are treated like prisoners in these camps in North Sri Lanka. “Hundreds of thousands of Tamils remain locked in camps almost entirely offlimits to journalists, human rights investigators and political leaders,” The New York Times reported on July 12 after meet some refugees in one of the camps.

MAKING A mockery of the international outrage on the rising deaths, disappearances, and malnourishment in the camps, Rajapaksa described the ‘welfare villages’, as the camps are known in Sri Lanka, as “the best” of their kind, in a recent interview to N Ram, Editor of The Hindu.

Only last month, the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Sarath N Silva, spoke with rare candour about the inhumane conditions he had witnessed in the camps. “It is an utter lie to say that there is only one race and no majority or minority in the country,” Silva had said. “I can’t explain the pathetic situation they (the Tamils) undergo. I”

Colombo continues to deny the UN and other international aid agencies free access to the camps, saying it is identifying and separating LTTE cadres hiding among the refugees. The government has turned down appeals from human rights groups that the army make its screening process transparent.

Tamil politicians say that the refugees are gripped by fear because of this army operation targeting Tamil youth and middle-aged men. They say suspects are arbitrarily separated from their families and housed in special camps. Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told TEHELKA that about 10,000 persons are now in such camps. Jaffna MP MK Sivajilingam says relatives of the detainees are in great anguish since they don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones.

No agency, including the UN, has accurate details about the total number of inmates in each camp. The government has refused to reveal details despite demands from various bodies. When asked about the alleged disappearances of Tamil youth from the camps, UN Spokesperson for Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss said, “We have asked the government to increase the level of transparency surrounding the screening process.” He admitted that the UN and other international organisations do not have access to camps’ central registries. Thus, Colombo is accountable only to itself for the life of Tamil inmates. Since the number of detainees in the camps is unknown, theoretically, Colombo can get away with any number of disappearances.

Theoretically, Colombo can get away with any number of disappearances

Unhygienic conditions are posing major health problems in the camps. “There have been outbreaks of chicken pox, hepatitis and diarrhoea,” says Vinya Ariyaratne, executive director of Sarvodaya, a Lankan NGO working in the camps. He said about 20 percent of the children below the age of five, who number about 5,000, were malnourished.

“In one camp there are more than 40,000 people. The government is trying to decongest these camps by opening new ones,” Vinya told TEHELKA. Vinya said his organisation had no details about the allegedly high rates of deaths in the camps. However, The Times, London, has quoted senior international aid officials as saying that about 1,400 people were dying every week.

Weiss said that while the health front was under control, “There may well be more disease outbreaks if [the camp] systems become overwhelmed by rainfall and flooding,” adding that Sri Lanka had told the UN that a 180-day plan to return people to their homes will soon be implemented.

With western aid reducing sharply due to Colombo’s devil-may-care attitude on human rights issues, the Rajapaksa government has the daunting task of finding the resources to return the nearly three lakh refugees to their original habitations in the Wanni area of Sri Lanka – which has turned into a wasteland.

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