By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe
Father Rohan Silva is a respected senior Catholic priest who has been actively involved in building bridges between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka through the Centre for Society and Religion, a Catholic charity which he heads. His work has seen him play a role in assisting Tamil civilians recover from the impact of the civil war. In this context, he told Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe earlier in June this year, about the impact of the final months of the war on Tamil civilians who were caught in the crossfire, the conditions in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and the factors leading to the flight of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.
War zone file pic., Mar 2009
In the final phase of Sri Lanka’s separatist civil war, it was the Tamil civilian population that bore the brunt of the carnage that characterised the war’s last months, which in addition to being caught in the crossfire, saw Tamil civilians shot when trying to flee to government controlled territory and forced by the LTTE to act as either human shields or forcibly recruited conscripts. The actual number of civilian deaths is yet to be accurately estimated though it is generally believed to be several thousand or possibly more.
Father Rohan Silva: “Very interestingly there has been no resurgence of the LTTE. So people have the feeling that the war is over. For over a whole year we haven’t heard anything. So one definitely would say there was a reason to fight them and now at least people can get on a bus and travel without fear without looking at every other person’s bag, and when a Tamil person gets in he isn’t under immediate suspicion. People are more relaxed and that’s a credit to the government. One would say terrorists are to be fought. We don’t justify that, but the government has to handle that.”
“I think even to the last day on May 18, the LTTE expected a change. Even that late, the LTTE actually thought the international community might intervene because there was no other way. Precisely because of that fact, the government had declared that there were not 300,000 odd people there, otherwise it would have been an international issue. They were playing with statistics. They said it’s a matter of 100,000-150,000 people which was not true because when the whole bulk moved out they did not know where to put them.
It ended up with 280,000 finally. That is when you add up the others who had come earlier. These are only those that survived. How many died nobody knows, but actually we will find out soon. At least from a Christian point of view, the churches have their records. Normally the parish priest knows how many people are in his parish. When the parishes are rebuilt they will know how many are missing.
Conditions in IDP Camps
The conditions in IDP camps have been the subject of much speculation when the Sri Lankan authorities were in crisis mode attempting to deal with over 240,000 IDPs who were extracted from the combat zone in the final four weeks of the civil war (excluding the 40,000 plus civilians who arrived previously in the months from January to April 2009). In this context, Father Rohan Silva’s personal experience in attending to the plight of civilians in the IDP camps is illustrative of the complexity of such a huge humanitarian relief operation.
Father Rohan Silva: “Firstly they were moved to schools and wherever else possible, but when the IDP numbers increased they had to clear up more areas and create new camps. But of course they didn’t expect such a big group. They were not ready. At the beginning they provided the most basic things, but it took them almost three months or so to make it a settlement with water, food and medical facilities. Many NGOs were not allowed to go in, although church organisations were allowed in — which is why we got the chance to go in.
“Since the beginning we were permitted entry, but we could only talk to the people. Work wise it was Caritas that got permission, but only for certain things like giving supplementary items and later, because of the number of children, they were given permission to begin small schools.
But later they needed support, so they phoned the churches and that’s how the church got involved. The parishes got organised, they cooked their meals and took them to the camps, but of course they had to go through the military. Then gradually the government and the World Food Programme got involved; the UN got involved. Then they needed other things like vegetables (which Caritas had to provide), utensils, water and so on. There were several needs the government couldn’t handle, so they invited in other groups that had the capacity to do that.
“There were people who were coming out on the last days — both the 17th and 18th of May. It’s a long distance from Killinochchi, which was where they were all brought to and then along the A9 road because that was the safest to travel on. Zone numbers four and five was where the last batches of IDPs were sent into. There was a lot happening at the time and even the army was not very sure who had LTTE affiliations among the IDPs who arrived. The government was very sure towards the end that within this group there would be LTTE operatives and with that restrictions were imposed.”
“When they were brought into the final zone there were many restrictions and as they came in and they were put into a ‘no access’ special zone. What happened was that the facilities were acceptable for the first group, the second and third groups they could manage, but the fourth and fifth groups took time to organise. But as the months passed by, the IDP camps developed.
“It was from May until the end of July or so that zones four and five weren’t given full access. Access meaning there were many restrictions but outsiders were allowed to go inside and help. Not just anybody could walk in. Only certain groups who have been registered and acquired prior permission could go in and sometimes it was only up to a particular point. Those were the restrictions, but of course if the officer was kind enough sometimes you were allowed to go further. Once you’re inside nobody knows where you are. It was a huge area and we visited people in that way. Conditions in the IDP camps improved month by month. There were some sicknesses at the very beginning, but later it improved. Thank god there were no serious sicknesses.
“The IDPs wouldn’t divulge anything unless they knew who you were. They were very silent. As a group that went in regularly, it took us almost three to four months to hear something against the LTTE. I suppose the government was right in that sense because some of the famous Mahaveera (great hero) family members would have been in the final group. Also they didn’t wish to openly criticise the LTTE (although now some have opened up and spoken of how they struggled to live there); because you see their main concern was to protect their children.
“I’m sure there are many NGOs that are willing to help just like during the aftermath of the tsunami. Although many embassies have money, they were not allowed access because the government is very careful about restrictions. Everything is scrutinised. Caritas, the Catholic organisation is allowed to build houses and so forth, but they are given a structure to work within, they need to account for money spent and the people there.
“The resettlement process is hugely monitored. At first people said, ‘Let us go home and within three months we’ll be up again.’ But it is only once they got there that they saw the destruction and realised that they would have to begin from scratch. The resettlement process is very slow. The government will always say there is demining to be done therefore they cannot send people back. Then of course when people are taken there, they find nothing to live. They were given some money and rations and are expected to find their own way. They say other facilities are not there and added to it all is the heavy presence of the armed personnel around.”
The view purported by Father Rohan Silva about the departure of thousands of Tamil asylum seekers from the IDP camps in Sri Lanka provides revealing insights into the complexity of the problem and the varied motivational factors that led to the growing incidents of asylum seeker arrivals from Sri Lanka to countries overseas.
Father Rohan Silva: “I don’t think the numbers of those who ran away can be that high. I know a whole family escaped, very interestingly through the fence and they have gone abroad as well. There was also someone, an LTTE big-shot, who left and the following day they said he phoned from India. But I feel that those who thought of escaping these camps also thought of leaving the country because they feared that at some point they will be caught. Many of them could have been affiliated or connected to the LTTE through family or something like that. Maybe about 1000 or 2000 would have left in that way. But I’m very sure that they were mostly people who had money or influence. All those people left in the camps are those who cannot do anything. Those who had the power to do something are probably long gone.
“Those who are really connected to the LTTE had to get out of Sri Lanka. If not, they would’ve been tried. There are so many LTTE members in detention camps because you could be put in for the slightest suspicion for years. They know their fate, so their best option is to leave the country. Of course once they do go out, they say they have been threatened and their lives have been threatened. That’s what everyone says. The top-rankers would have tried to escape. Unless they had international connections, if you were a normal fighter you couldn’t have gone overseas. We don’t have proof, but we heard that all these Tamil political groups that visited the IDP camps knew who was LTTE as they came from the same areas, so they could identify those connected to the LTTE. They probably offered them a deal, ‘If you want to get out then this is the price. If you can give us this amount you will be definitely put outside the shore.’”
“But some would have thought that if they left the country it would have been better for both parties, rather than them being around. I think the general scenario at that stage was to escape from the camps. So the moment they got a chance to get out of the place, they did so. Those that remain are ones who want to go back and start their lives again. They can’t go abroad because they have nobody to support them. If someone sponsored them they would undoubtedly take the chance. Those with a possibility of being sponsored would have left by now."
The primary evidence and first-hand account illustrated by Father Rohan Silva provides a valuable and much needed insight on controversial issues in Sri Lanka’s post-conflict environment, which have continually received widespread and often either misleading or sensationalised coverage in the global media. Such accounts serve to broaden the understanding of the difficulties faced by the IDPs and the complexities of managing a humanitarian crisis that characterised the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
(Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is an analyst who specialises in South Asian and Indian Ocean Region politics and security.)