(AFP) As British Prime Minister David Cameron toured the muddy alleys of a poverty-stricken resettlement camp in Sri Lanka’s former warzone Friday, residents raised their hopes that finally someone was listening.
Cameron spoke with elderly women and barefoot children and entered their shanty homes in Sabapathi Pillai Welfare Centre outside Jaffna town to learn of their fate since the bloody fighting between Tamil rebels and government troops ended in 2009.
“I’m going to raise this case with people from your government,” Cameron told about a dozen women in one alley as they crowded around the premier trying to tell their stories.
Some 300 Tamil families, who fled their villages and towns during the fighting, live in the settlement, unable to return home. Some say they cannot afford to return, while others point to ongoing military occupation of their land.
“We are pinning our hopes on him,” T. Padmavathy said after Cameron inspected her tiny home, which has no toilet and no running water.
“No politician has come to meet and talk with us before,” the 60-year-old woman said.
Cameron, who become the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since Sri Lanka won its independence from Britain in 1948, also visited a Tamil newspaper’s offices which has been repeatedly attacked, allegedly by the military.
Surrounded by bullet holes and photos of bloodied reporters, newspaper editor M.V. Kaanamylnathan said he had a simple message for Cameron, who left a Commonwealth summit and headed north to shine a spotlight on Colombo’s alleged abuses against ethnic minority Tamils.
“One, we are suffering as a press and the rights of our readers are still suffering even after the war,” Kaanamylnathan said he would tell Cameron, as his staff posted photos of their reporters beaten by security forces over the years to the walls.
“This needs to be told to the international world,” the editor told AFP shortly before Cameron’s visit.
“Everyone is pretending that everything is okay, that Tamils have equal rights, but it’s not true.”
The newspaper Uthayan (“The Sun”) has a long history of coming under deadly attack by security forces because of its reporting of alleged abuses during the war.
The conflict, in which more than 100,000 people were killed, ended in May 2009 in an onslaught against the Tamil Tiger rebels on their last stronghold, but that did not signal an end to the paper’s woes.
As recently as April, its printing presses were torched while Kaanamylnathan himself was attacked in 2001.
“We expect the prime minister’s visit will not make a change to the government’s and the paramilitaries’ attitudes towards us,” he said in his lounge room, which still has bullet holes from yet another attack.
During his short visit, Cameron also met the chief minister of Sri Lanka’s northern province, a Tamil who won provincial elections earlier this year.
Outside Jaffna library, where the meeting was held, about 100 people, mainly women whose relatives went missing during and after the war, gathered to hold a peaceful protest.
Some broke through a police line and tried to hurl themselves at Cameron’s car as he was leaving as they clutched photos of their missing sons.
Subalashimi Tharshan said she hopes the prime minister’s visit will force Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s Sinhalese-majority government to finally tell the women the fate of their loved ones.
“The government should be answerable for what they have done. International people coming here must pressure the president to tell us where they are,” she told AFP holding a large photo of her son Rajathurai.
Tharshan, 48, travelled some 100 kilometres (60 miles) by bus from Mannar in the north for Cameron’s visit, while other women also came from neighbouring districts.
She said her son was recruited as an 18-year-old to fight alongside the Tigers in 2007. He was held in a northern military-run camp after the rebels were defeated in 2009, but has not been seen or heard of since.
She said she was not scared of retribution by the military which still has a large presence in the north four years after the end of the war, despite fears plain-clothed officers will be present at the protest.
“We are not afraid. They have taken our children, what can they do?” she said, her voice breaking, as women sat nearby in the dirt outside a Hindu temple.
Emmanuel Sebamali, a Catholic priest who has organised the protest, said he wanted Cameron to meet those still carrying the daily burden of the war’s legacy.
“We want David Cameron to see the suffering of our people, hear about the human rights violations … and the killings,” he told AFP.
Pix courtesy – AFP