In Sri Lanka, anger over fate of ethnic Tamils held in camps

A family of internally displaced ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils wait to go home at Kathankulam village in Mannar, 144 miles north of Colombo, on Oct. 22, 2009.
A family of internally displaced ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils wait to go home at Kathankulam village in Mannar, 144 miles north of Colombo, on Oct. 22, 2009. (Str/sri Lanka - Reuters)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

TRINCOMALEE, SRI LANKA -- Six months after Sri Lanka's decades-old civil war ended with a final assault, about 200,000 people remain trapped in overcrowded government-run camps that were once safe havens for those fleeing the conflict.

Facing pressure from the Obama administration and the European Union, the Sri Lankan government last month launched a campaign to resettle tens of thousands of the minority Tamil detainees. But interviews in the country's war-ravaged north reveal that many civilians have merely been shuffled from the large camps to smaller transit ones and are being held against their will. Others have been released, only to be taken from their homes days later with no indication of where they have gone.

After the army defeated the Tamil rebels in May, top government officials paraded their success on the streets of Colombo, the capital, and the country's leaders made noble promises about ensuring national harmony. Now analysts say the real test of Sri Lanka's success in building a stable, post-conflict society lies in the fate of these scores of thousands of detainees.

Human rights groups say the government is lying about its resettlement efforts; authorities concede they are using the camps as a tool to uncover any remaining Tamil militants but deny they are deliberately stalling civilians' return home.

"We thought this war was over. But for Tamils, it's like going from the frying pan and into the fire," said Devander Kumar, whose brother was released, only to be taken away by police without explanation, one of 30 men in this seaside city who have disappeared soon after their homecoming. "Do we Tamils have to prove every second of the day that we are not terrorists?"

Tamil leaders worry that if civilians end up languishing in the camps indefinitely, the situation will only breed more resentments and risk spawning another generation of rebels. But the government says it needs more time to de-mine vast stretches of land in the north, as well as to repair infrastructure damaged by war. Authorities also say they continue to root out rebels who have blended into the civilian population.

"History will prove us right," said Basil Rajapaksa, who is leading the resettlement process. Rajapaksa is a U.S. citizen and an adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother.

"We need the transit camps to weed out any underground rebels. The Tamil people have had a lot of hardship," he said. "So the last thing we want is to sacrifice their security for the sake of risking even one more sleeper cell or one more attack."

After a fierce military offensive in May, the government declared victory over the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a well-funded militia that for 26 years fought for a separate homeland in northern Sri Lanka. The United States and other governments have labeled the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization. The group pioneered the use of suicide bombings and is said to have orchestrated bombings that killed a Sri Lankan president, six cabinet ministers and, in 1991, former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The U.S. State Department has called for an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by both sides during the war's final days. After the fighting stopped, the president commissioned patriotic pop songs extolling the virtues of a prosperous Sri Lanka united under one flag. In the new Sri Lanka, he said, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority would embrace its Tamil compatriots, who are mostly Hindu and make up 15 percent of the nation's 20 million people.

But there is growing frustration among Tamils over the camps, ringed by razor-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards. There is also anger over the unexplained arrests of military-age men.

On a recent day at a camp set up inside a school here, soldiers held back a group of weeping women who rushed to the gates to greet family members they had not seen in more than a year because they had gotten separated during the fighting.

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