We were harassed day and night and the men were hit with rifles
Living by a palm-fringed golden beach on the edge of the Indian Ocean, Suganthinhi Thesamanikam considers herself lucky to be alive after living through the hell of war.
Caught between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army, she dodged bullets and shells for two years before ending up on the sandy littoral where the rebel leadership was routed in May, in a bloody ending to a 25-year-old civil war. Three of her cousins were killed during the last days of heavy aerial bombardment.
Herded by the army, the 22-year-old then lived for four months under a tin roof, surviving on dry rations and going days without clean water in a vast, overcrowded camp behind barbed wire and armed soldiers.
“We were harassed day and night and the men were hit with rifles if they talked back to the soldiers. I don’t know why, we were not LTTE, we are ordinary poor people,” she said.
She was one of the first Tamils to be resettled from the camps last month, and says she has found some solace in her mother’s shack on the seashore near the harbour town of Trincomalee. But her husband remains inside one of the camps. “He is not [a member of] the rebel LTTE. But the army says he cannot go home because his home village is near [the north Sri Lankan city of] Jaffna, where the LTTE were strong. We met during the war ‑ but now that is over I cannot have peace.”
With less than 5% of the 300,000 Tamils released from what the United Nations describes as “internment camps”, tales such as Thesamanikam’s have only just begun to be told.
The 22-year-old was kept in Manik Farm, 160 miles north of Colombo, where 280,000 people were initially housed – more than double the number the camp was intended to cope with.
The camp, say former inhabitants, is packed, with two or three families sharing a tent or tin shack. There are complaints of stinking, overflowing toilets, water shortages and inadequate healthcare. Journalists are rarely given access and those inside Manik Farm are not allowed to cross its fortified perimeter. The government says it has to use extreme measures because hiding in the civilian population are LTTE soldiers.
Speaking on a phone that had been smuggled into the camp, one civilian being held in Manik Farm, who did not want to be named, said two families had “been taken away and not seen again after saying some wrong things” to a reporter last month.
“People are scared to tell anyone of the problems we are facing. But it is a prison here. There are not enough health facilities for the problems in the camp and we don’t have enough water.”
The Sri Lankan authorities recently allowed humanitarian relief workers into Manik Farm. The immediate criticism was that there were persistent water shortages. Then heavy rains sent rivers of sewage cascading through tents and tin sheds.
Now there are growing fears that with monsoon rains due in October, the camps could become a sea of thick mud and slop.
Doctors in the main hospital in Vavuniya, the largest town near the camp, say that more 1,000 people have died since May, mainly due to “malnutrition-related complications”, and warn of an impending disaster if conditions do not improve.
“Things have improved in the camps as aid workers have come. But we will have to face a big disaster when the monsoon arrives here,” said Muthulingam Lavan, the judicial medical officer in Vavuniya.
“The problem is that the camp lies on a flood-prone area. We’ll have malaria, sewage and dengue fever. It will be very bad unless [people] are moved.”
On Friday, nearly 10,000 refugees were sent back to their villages and the government has said it will move 100,000 people back to their homes in October. But ministers have yet to give detailed plans.
Attempts so far to send back people to their “native places” have also been criticised for being chaotic and underfunded.
A number of elderly people who had lived in LTTE territory for decades were taken back to towns they had not seen since they were children.
“I was left on the road with just the clothes I had carried from that prison,” said Elizabeth Sarvanamuttu, who was “returned” to Trincomalee. “That is all I had with me. I was only saved because a local family adopted me. I am 68 and look, I had to be adopted like a baby.”
Others, whose families were torn apart by the war, are waiting to be reunited. Ravi Ravidharan, living in the eastern city of Batticaloa, said he had been ferried out of the war zone in February after his wife was killed by an army bomb – an attack which shattered his baby son’s leg. He left his two other children with his in-laws and has not seen them since.
Once his son was released from hospital the government provided no further assistance and he has eked out a living doing odd jobs while looking after his disabled two-year-old son.
“I traced my other children to Manik Farm,” the 42-year-old said. “Because I lived in LTTE territory and all my possessions are lost I have no record to say my children are mine. Their mother is dead. How do I get them out?”
Jehan Perera, of Sri Lanka‘s National Peace Council, said tales such as these “evoke such sorrow, and stem from the government focus on security as its first priority. “We need some measure of assistance for innocent civilians.”
There is growing pressure on the government to free the tens of thousands of Tamils still being kept in camps. The UN, which has provided funding of $188m (about £113m), says it cannot pay for the camps indefinitely. “We need not only for the government to let people go but also to allow freedom of movement,” said a UN spokesman in Colombo.
But Sri Lanka insists it must screen everyone to weed out any rebels.
Authorities also fear that once the civilian population is returned, the Tamil Tigers will be able to regroup, despite claims that the organisation is all but finished.
“The military wing is dead,” said a former fighter who was a commander with the Tigers’ navy. “For now we have to live under the occupation of the army in our historic homeland. An uprising failed, that is all.”