RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: 'Plight of Tamils Similar to Gaza Civilians'
By IPS Correspondents
Tamil civilians, who escaped the fighting in the Vanni, at a government shelter in Vavuniya.
COLOMBO, Jan 26 (IPS) - While the Sri Lankan army has announced the capture of Mullaitivu, the last bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the plight of more than 250,000 civilians caught in the fighting continues to be as grim as that of civilians in Gaza, say those involved in humanitarian work.
The defence ministry’s website said that the army had ‘’gained total control over the Mullaitivu township after completing mop up operations’’. However, there was no word that any of the leaders of the LTTE, including its elusive supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, had been captured.
"We now have a high number of people concentrated in a small area and we are very concerned for their safety. They are close to the fighting and have poor access to healthcare and shelter as well as proper water and sanitation," Philippe Duamelle, country representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund, told IPS.
"While every effort must be made by the government and the LTTE to avoid any civilian casualties, the best thing for these people is that the LTTE allows them to move freely and enter a safe area where they can receive appropriate support,’’ Duamelle said.
Peter Balleis, international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), one of the few agencies with access into the LTTE dominated Vanni area, described the situation as a second Gaza in the making.
"Around 300,000 people, that is two-thirds of the civilian population, have been forced out of their homes and are living in camps in areas controlled by the LTTE. They are trapped in (an area) not more than 50 sq km, the size of Gaza,’’ Balleis said.
"It is the last stronghold of the LTTE which imposes a strict pass system, preventing people from moving to safer places. They are crowded together in temporary shelters, surrounded by mud, with no promise of regular access to food or adequate sanitation," he said. The JRS’s affiliate Caritas works in the Vanni through Catholic churches in the region.
According to a report on Sunday in the defence ministry website, the LTTE has ‘’laid a swathe of land mines, in the densely populated LTTE controlled areas - Theravikulam, Visuamadu and Puthukudiyirippu in Mullaitivu - to prevent the civilians fleeing to the government controlled areas’’.
John Holmes, U.N. under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, told the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 14 that he feared that as many as 350,000 civilians may be trapped by the fighting. "I am, however, concerned that some 350,000 civilians are trapped in an increasingly confined space and effectively prevented from leaving by the LTTE. This raises deep concerns over the possible use of civilians to render areas immune from military operations.’’
Holmes later called on the LTTE to allow the civilians to move to safety. "In accordance with International Humanitarian Law, the United Nations calls upon the LTTE to allow civilians to be able to move freely to areas where they feel most secure and for the government to receive newly displaced people according to internationally agreed principles," he said in a statement on Jan.16.
Food and other supplies have been transported to the civilians by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the only international agency with a permanent presence in areas still under LTTE control.
"Because of ongoing combat operations and the moving frontline, tens of thousands of displaced civilians are concentrated in an area so small that there are serious concerns for their physical safety and living conditions, in particular in terms of hygiene,'' the ICRC said.
Limited information is available on the casualties suffered by the civilians due to access restrictions into the areas of heavy fighting. The government said that troops have taken extra precautions to avoid civilian casualties and that a policy of 'zero civilian casualties' was being adopted on the ground.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting since early 2008 and according to the U.N. at least 230,000 may be now remaining in areas just east and north of the fighting. Whle the initial flight was deeper into Tiger held areas they no wfind themselves nowhere to turn.
The first civilians to escape the fighting in mid and late 2008 made it out by the sea route.
Kumar Ganesh a fisherman from Mullaitivu, escaped the fighting in November by taking a midnight boat ride along with 13 others. "We took the boat soon after midnight because we did not want to get detected by anyone," Ganesh said.
"Near Kuchiveli (south of Mullaitivu) we were stopped by the (Sri Lankan) Navy, they handed us to the police and we were brought to Siddamabaram IDP centre in Vavuniya (250 km from Colombo),'' Kumar said.
There are two welfare centres already functioning in Vavuniya and the government has said that it planned to increase it to three to accommodate at least 30,000 families.
"Civilians in the Vanni are weary from the conflict. Repeated displacements, often involving the loss of their personal belongings, have taken a toll on them. Nevertheless, their ability to cope has been remarkable," ICRC chief Paul Castella said.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a think tank based in Colombo, said that despite the Sri Lankan army’s victories "a low-level insurgency could last forever unless there is a negotiated settlement with the Tamils’’.
The LTTE has for more than a quarter century been fighting to establish an independent state for ethnic Tamils - who make up about 18 percent of the island nation’s population of 21 million people - in the north and east of the island country.