U.N. Chief Calls Sri Lanka War Zone 'Very Sobering'

Krishma Lela, a Tamil rice farmer, lives in a refugee camp. His son, 21, has been detained by the military on suspicion of being a rebel fighter.
Krishma Lela, a Tamil rice farmer, lives in a refugee camp. His son, 21, has been detained by the military on suspicion of being a rebel fighter. "My livelihood is gone. And now my son is gone, too," Lela says. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 24, 2009

MANIK FARMS, Sri Lanka, May 23 -- Night after night, with heavy shelling over their farming village, Krishma Lela and his family did what they could to survive: They dug a trench out of the red earth and huddled inside.

They moved only among a network of bunkers, made by hundreds of other Tamil villagers trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels during the last days of fighting in a quarter-century-long civil war that came to an apparent end Monday.

"We were so afraid," said Lela, a rice farmer who had made it to Manik Farms, a hastily erected camp now housing 200,000 people. "Sometimes at night my wife screams out. Her mind can't rest. She thinks like she's still inside the trenches, hiding."

Their story and others like it emerged Saturday as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toured the biggest displacement camp for Tamil civilians and flew over the ravaged northeastern coastal villages, where the final battles were fought.

About 300 feet above the combat zone, Ban and a group of journalists surveyed a tableau of destruction: overturned buses, gutted houses, blown-off rooftops. Debris was strewn across vast stretches of scorched earth. There were also thousands of trenches, a lifeline for Tamil villagers trying to survive.

Along the coastal strip, the earth was also marked by deep craters -- thought to be from bombs -- which were beginning to fill with rainwater as the monsoon season begins.

The widespread devastation showed in stark terms the human cost of the government's push to end one of the world's longest-running conflicts. The government denied shelling or using heavy weapons in the fight, and defied calls by Ban and other world leaders to halt its offensive to protect civilians. Human rights groups and diplomats, along with doctors -- some of whom have been detained by the government -- said the government was responsible for heavy shelling that killed hundreds of civilians.

Ban will report his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has planned a special session on Sri Lanka on Monday. At least 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of fighting, according to the United Nations.

"As I was flying over the war zone, I thought the fighting must have been very severe and inhumane for the people trapped," said Ban, who called the destruction "very sobering, very sad, very moving."

Both sides have been accused of war crimes, especially during the past few months as government troops cornered the Tamil Tigers on a narrow ribbon of land on the northeastern coast. Aid agencies say that the Tamil Tigers used civilians, including children, as human shields and that the government indiscriminately shelled hospitals and areas where civilians huddled in trenches.

"Both sides were shelling us. We spent weeks in those trenches," said Sumathi, 28, a mother of five who was a refugee in neighboring India during the 1990s, when half her family was killed in fighting. "I hate this country because of this war. I wanted to come back to my normal life. But now I am worried I will spend my whole life in camps."

Rohita Bogollagama, Sri Lanka's minister of foreign affairs, said he is "confident" that government forces did not commit war crimes.

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