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Sri Lanka Debates Fate of War Refugees in Government Camps

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 15, 2009

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka, Feb. 14 -- Sangari Sarojini, a recently widowed mother of three, arrived exhausted at a government camp for those fleeing the crossfire of this country's still-unfolding war. She was anxious to register and let her three young children rest after they spent more than 24 hours running from the fighting.

"We don't know when this war will be over," said Sarojini, 32, tearfully cradling her 3-month-old in a frayed blanket and recounting how her husband was killed while the family raced across the front lines. "I've lost my husband. I have these children. How can I survive?"

She is among an estimated 35,000 traumatized and displaced Tamils who have arrived in recent weeks in Vavuniya, a heavily guarded town 50 miles from the front lines. The fate of her family and others like it are becoming the subject of debate as Sri Lanka's military continues its push into Tamil Tiger rebel territory, hoping to crush its 25-year campaign for an independent homeland.

At the heart of the insurgency are long-standing grievances of the country's Tamils, an ethnic minority that makes up about 18 percent of the nation's population of 21 million -- most in the north and east of the island country. Some Tamils say they have suffered economic marginalization and racial discrimination by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese.

As Sri Lanka's government prepares to house the fleeing Tamils, the conditions of the camps and the plans to open long-term "welfare villages" for them have become controversial in the international community and among aid workers. There is fear that the displaced Tamils will be sidelined away from the north's reconstruction and development of their own communities. It might also be more difficult for Tamils to reclaim their farms.

The government has promised to quickly resettle those who fled.

The camps are officially sealed to journalists, diplomats and politicians. In recent days, more international aid organizations have been allowed inside to help distribute aid. The new camps will provide schools, post offices, community centers, parks and patches of land for vegetable gardens, government officials said.

From his office in the capital of Colombo, Basil Rajapaksa, a senior adviser to his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and an American citizen, said security was one of the reasons for keeping visitors out of the camps. He said the Tamil Tiger rebel group, which the United States calls a terrorist organization because of its use of suicide bomb squads, is known for having members mix with the civilian population. He said the camps would be opened soon for a short period to allow journalists on a guided tour.

"We also want to give these people dignity and privacy," he said, showing photographs of neatly organized camps with banks, water tanks, electricity and health posts. "This is not like visiting a zoo. These are innocent people. Why should people go and take photographs of them and exploit them to get aid donations like they did during the tsunami time? We are not here to satisfy the international community. These are our Sri Lankan brothers. We are thinking about them."

Several Tamil opposition leaders have complained about a lack of access to the camps and said they would pressure the government to make sure war-affected families were resettled quickly.

Suresh K. Premachandran, a Tamil member of Parliament representing the northern Jaffna district, was recently turned back at a government checkpoint when he attempted to drive to Vavuniya to visit the camps. He said a lack of openness is fueling mistrust, especially in a Tamil population that has been displaced as many as a dozen times, as the war intensified this year.

"The Tamil Tigers are a product and a creation of many Sri Lankan governments and their second-class treatment of the Tamil people," Premachandran said. "Till today, there is no political solution for this war. No one wants the people inside these camps to feel like caged animals, like these are detention camps. If nothing bad is happening, why not let the truth come out?"

A high-ranking international aid worker, who is helping to run the camps but could not be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the government would be wise to show the camps, "to calm nervousness over the conditions." He said some of the displaced Tamils are traumatized and might feel more comfortable if the camps were open to visitors.

"They are overcrowded. There are some water issues. But they are also a real improvement over what these refugees have been through: running from bullets, living under trees with only a sari stretched over branches as shelter," the aid worker said. "What you can't see is always worse than the unknown."

The Tamil Tiger separatists now occupy less than 61 square miles of coastal land in the northeast, the military said. Aid workers said they expect many more civilians to arrive as the fighting continues. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 250,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone. But the government says the number is less than half that.

Sarojini hopes this camp will be safer than her village. On a recent afternoon, the army gave her rice packets and bottled water.

"I just want to survive," she said, rocking her child.

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