by Rev.John Barr
After UnitingWorld’s the Rev. John Barr returned from visiting the war-torn north of Sri Lanka in June, he described his journey as one of the most challenging and confronting trips he has ever experienced. Here is his reflection.
The island of Sri Lanka is likened to a tear drop in the Indian Ocean. This is, perhaps, a most apt image given the country’s tumultuous history. In 2009, we all cried and opened our hearts to over 280,000 Tamil civilians that were interned in detention centres run by Sri Lankan security forces. Humanitarian aid was severely restricted and ‘unexplainable disappearances’ were frequent.
My recent journey to the north of the island gave a chilling insight into the issues that thousands of Tamils continue to face. While much of the conflict is over, it is clear that many people have been unable to access their most basic needs. My experience left me questioning whether Tamils are truly safe from harm today.
During the one week trip to assess the situation, I visited several holding centres for Tamils who have been released from detention camps and await permission from security forces to return to their homeland.
These holding centres are extremely dire places. Food is scarce and access to basic health care is minimal.
One of my strongest memories is my visit to a centre located in the grounds of the former Killinochchi Central College, where some 335 families reside today.
The top floors of the main building have been blasted by artillery and mortars during the war. The people who live there receive food from the United Nations World Food Programme, but access to basic health care remains extremely limited.
A doctor from the Jaffna Diocese Green Memorial Hospital in Jaffna visits the centre for a few hours whenever possible to perform medical checkups. During this visit I met Annamma, a young mother of three children. One of her legs had been blown off during the recent war. Her husband was incapacitated due to a bullet lodged in his spine.
Annamma’s family were Tamils that had fled Jaffna in 1995 to rebuild their lives in Vanni, an autonomous Tamil region. Their future now remains in serious jeopardy.
Annamma told me she is “sick of being here”. She is “sick of waiting… all we do is line up and wait… for food, for water, for a shower…”. Thousands of others are in this same situation. There was a depressing sense of hopelessness in this holding centre.
These families are waiting here for land to become available where they can resettle, but much of the land remains riddled by land mines and is as such uninhabitable.
At another centre, the people were in no better condition.
I met a man who had lost both his legs. Another man suffered shrapnel wounds in his stomach. Then a woman next to me collapsed to the ground and gripped her head tightly, convulsing on the ground. People tell me that this happens to her frequently, a result of shrapnel lodged in her brain.
Today approximately 45,000 people have no choice but to continue to live in these centres scattered throughout the country’s north.
Back here in Australia, we hear little more than reports that we war is over and that conditions are improving in Sri Lanka. But my first hand view highlights that the Tamils there continue to experience a real sense of subjugation and humiliation.
Many queue for hours to access to food and health care. They wait for months on end, uncertain of when they will be able to return to their land and start rebuilding their lives. There are no places for Tamils to mourn, and many do not know what has happened to their loved ones. Trauma is a massive issue, and there is no closure for so many people.
An urgent question in Australia concerns the wellbeing of Tamils from the north and the east of Sri Lanka seeking asylum in Australia. Many are detained in terrible conditions with limited access to their most basic needs.
Are Tamils truly safe in Sri Lanka today? From what I saw the answer is NO.
We have a responsibility to continue opening our hearts to the many thousands of Tamils who face danger in Sri Lanka today.
John Barr is Associate Director for Church Solidarity (Asia)