Situation Report

22nd September 1996

Refugees: a human tragedy

By Iqbal Athas

Whilst the security forces and Tiger guerrillas are bracing themselves for another confrontation, the repercussions set off by the country's worst military debacle at the Mullaitivu base two months ago continues to dominate the ongoing separatist war.

Nowhere is it more evident than in the exodus of large numbers of civilians from the Vanni, some to Vavuniya, others across the Palk Strait to Tamil Nadu and the rest forced to scatter to remote corners where the fighting is not intense.

A warning of what this trend portends was given to the government barely two weeks ago by Peter Meijer, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He sought a meeting with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to apprise her of the situation. In view of her busy schedule, the President detailed her Secretary. Mr. Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, with whom Mr. Meijer had a 90-minute meeting on Friday, August 13.

Also taking part in the discussion were Mr. Somapala Gunadheera, head of the Northern Province Re-settlement and Rehabilitation Authority and Mr. G. Koffner, Senior Protection Officer of the UNHCR.

UNHCR officials are of the view that the exodus of refugees was not being directed and controlled by the LTTE. Of course, they point out that the LTTE was not preventing those leaving.

The thrust of the UNHCR's request was to call upon the Government to create conditions for people to stay behind. He told the president's secretary that the refugees laving for India were complaining of non availability of food besides expressing fears of being caught up to the fighting. The UN agency's officials had interviewed groups of persons who were preparing to leave as well as those who have left.

Mr. Meijer also impressed on the need for streamlining the government's food distribution system. He was of the view that shelter material and medicine were the most important needs of the refugees.

Already the UNHCR has made available to the government its reception centre in Trincomalee to accommodate displaced persons to remain in transit whilst awaiting a boat to take them to Jaffna. The bulk of these displaced persons are those moved by train from camps in Vavuniya. Since the Mullaitivu debacle, these camps have become home for the hundreds of displaced persons from the Wanni who are arriving in Vavuniya after crossing the Thandikulam checkpoint - the furthest point in the northern Vavuniya district that is under security forces control.

The human tragedy the recent events have brought about unfold in these camps. An officials who visited one of these camps that boused 850 inmates, from a six-month old baby to an 80-year-old grandmother, recounted his firsthand experience.

After their father was killed in an incident in Kilinochchi, the mother of two children aged 10 and 12, handed them over to her sister. Fearing that the children might end up with the LTTE, the sister left her with the two kids, crossed the Thandikulam barrier and found shelter in the camp. The mother is now dead and the sister is in a dilemma.

She made attempts to have the two children admitted to a school in Vavuniya but failed. She has now registered herself for clearance to leave Vavuniya and go back with the two children to Kilinochchi. She has a big fear that the LTTE might induct the two children. But she has no choice.

A person in his late sixties, who lives in Vavuniya, left for Kilinochchi to escort his wife and children home. They had been living in the outskirts of the Kilinochchi town but had fled soon after fighting broke out. Upon their return, the entire family has found themselves in a camp. They are waiting there until they are cleared although the man concerned has his own house in Vavuniya.

There is the case of the elderly couple, the husband 75 years old suffering from an eye ailment and his wife in her late seventies. Every morning it is an ordeal when the wife struggles to guide the husband to the camp's toilet located some distance away from the main building where they live.

According to the official, thousands of civilians are stranded at Omanthai, barely four kilometres away from the Nochchimodai checkpoint. Their camp is located near an LTTE recruitment centre. During nights LTTE propaganda videos are screened and cadres lecture to the displaced persons in a bid to recruit youth and even elders. A sizeable number from this camp are said to be among those who have crossed the Gulf of Mannar in boats and arrived in Tamil Nadu.

The intake of displaced persons coming through the Nochchimodai checkpoint is carried out only after through checks are made on the persons by both the Army and the Police. This is in order to ensure the LTTE does not use the opportunity to infiltrate its own cadres. Such an infiltration, security officials fear, has already occurred. They believe sporadic incidents like last Thursday night's attack on policemen guarding the Vavuniya Railway Station was carried out by infiltrators.

The official said that the mass exodus of civilians has left Kilinochchi, now the focal point of a confrontation between the security forces and Police, deserted. LTTE cadres have taken up positions in the battle scarred buildings and adjoining areas. In the last two weeks these positions have become targets of artillery and aerial attacks by the security forces.

As reported in these columns last week, large number of LTTE cadres drawn from the east and other areas are now being concentrated in and around Kilinochchi. This is said to be in preparation for a security forces offensive. In the past weeks intelligence officials reported that the LTTE had unloaded unknown quantities of military hardware from the seas off Mullaitivu. They are said to have included 81 mm mortars.

Intelligence officials also reported attempts in the past months by the LTTE to secure Surface to Air missiles from sources in the Thai Cambodian border. According to Imran Vittachi, a journalist attached to Cambodia's Phnom Penh post, Sri Lanka Government took up the matter of LTTE weapons smuggling activity with the Cambodian authorities.

This took place when Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Thailand, Ms. Sarala Fernando, who is concurrently accredited to Cambodia flew to Phnom Penh last month to present her credentials. She voiced the Government's concerns to first Prime Minister, Norodom Ranaridh.

According to Marina Pok, Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Premier Ranaridh assured the Sri Lankan Ambassador that Cambodia would not be used for trading in contraband goods

According to Vittachi, there are strong indications that the LTTE have set up a safe-house in Phnom Penh, from which they engaged in arms buying. In a report to The Sunday Times, Vittachi says the LTTE are drawing on lucrative sources of revenue such as passport and visa forging.

He adds: Compared to before, there are many more Tamils coming to Cambodia said one expatriate who has lived in Phnom Penh for several years. I believe there is a general business going on here which is linked to the Tiges.

So far activity has been on a very small scale.... they are mostly buying up B-40 rocket launchers and AK 47s. There is a mobile cell of LTTE operatives who travel under cover claims Vittachi.

Goverment's own intelligence channels have also launched checks on LTTE's Cambodian connection but the ongoing censorship prevents the disclosure of some of the findings.

Notwithstanding the problem of refugees and acquisition of military hardware by the LTTE, the coming week portends to be crucial. The guerrilla might of the Tigers will be put to strong test again.

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