The Sri Lankan army is on the verge of wiping out the rebel Tamil Tiger forces. But, as Annie Kelly reports, there is concern that the displaced civilian population is suffering a fresh wave of human rights violations including arbitrary arrests and abductions
Last year, in a village in the east of Sri Lanka, Selvi Ratnarajah opened her door to find three masked men pointing guns at her face. They pushed inside and screamed at her to turn off the lights. When she refused, they shouted for her husband, Ravanana, dragged him into the street and forced him at gunpoint on to the back of a motorbike.
“I went out of the house and ran and ran through the bush,” she said, fingering her husband’s tattered ID card. “I could see the lights of the motorbike ahead and I saw them stop by a bridge. Then I heard shots. I ran towards the noise and I could hear someone breathing. It was dark and there were no lights and I was screaming for him. When I found my husband, they’d shot him in the mouth. He was trying to talk to me. I tried to scream again, but no sound came out. Then he died.”
Ratnarajah says she has no idea who took her husband or why. “When they came to the house, all they said was that he was being taken for questioning, but nobody has ever told me why he was taken,” she says. “Everywhere there are men with arms. We don’t know who they are and what is happening with the fighting, and I don’t know who to trust. I saw him being taken from the house but nobody will listen to me. My husband was never accused of anything.”
As the Sri Lankan military mounts a spring offensive designed to eliminate the Tamil Tigers and end their bloody 26-year struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, the civilian population of the Tamil-dominated regions is terrorised, displaced and fears the worst.
According to the Sri Lankan army, the Tigers are now making a last stand on a tiny strip of land in the north-east of the country. But the defeat of the rebels as a fighting force is unlikely to usher in a new period of tranquillity. Instead, say human rights organisations, a humanitarian catastrophe of “epidemic proportions” is unfolding in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Up to 190,000 civilians are still trapped between remaining Tamil Tiger fighters and advancing government forces in the Vanni region.
As rebel soldiers melt back into the civilian population, and the number of those displaced by the fighting swells, tales of brutality and intimidation are legion. Meanwhile, people are simply disappearing.
Despite journalists being banned from travelling to the war zone and not being allowed free access to “liberated areas”, the Observer, working with a local journalist, has obtained the testimonies of women such as Selvi who tell of husbands, brothers and sons vanishing or taken by force.
Bhavani Varnakulasingham, a 26-year- old mother of two, wept as she held her husband’s photograph and told of the day he disappeared on his way home from his job as a driver for an international aid organisation. “He’d gone to [the capital,] Colombo. He called to say he was on his way home, but when he didn’t arrive I started calling his mobile,” she said. “I tried calling for days. Once, someone answered, and I screamed and pleaded for them to release him, but they rang off. Then I knew for certain he’d been taken.”
She has no idea why her husband was taken or who took him. And despite repeated requests to police and government officials, she has received no information about what happened to him.
In a village near Batticaloa on the east coast, Amirtha Sinnathamby said unidentified gunmen had shot her elder brother in 2006 and another died after being caught in crossfire between rebels and government soldiers. Last November, her husband disappeared after travelling to Colombo to apply for a work permit.
“People from Colombo called me and said he’d been taken,” she said. “I went to the police station and lodged a complaint, went to Tamil politicians, the Red Cross, the Human Rights Commission, but nobody could help me. Nobody can tell me who abducted him or why he was abducted. Now I have nothing; I have used all my money travelling to Colombo to lodge complaints with the police. But I don’t know whether he is dead or alive. I continue to live with tears.”
The wave of disappearances and arbitrary arrests has led a host of human rights organisations to sound the alarm. Chris Chapman, conflict prevention officer at Minority Rights International, said: “We are extremely concerned about the situation faced by minorities in Sri Lanka’s conflict area. Apart from the humanitarian catastrophe in the battle zone, there is also evidence of rising incidents of human rights violations.
“We are getting reports of arbitrary arrests, abductions and disappearances among Tamils fleeing the fighting. These violations are also happening in other parts of the country. Whatever the military outcome is, we see no evidence that this pattern of human rights violations will stop.
“There needs to be serious international pressure on the Sri Lankan government to put in place a human rights mechanism to ensure that the large number of incidents of abductions and enforced disappearances in the north and east are stopped and the perpetrators brought to justice.”
Anna Neistat, senior emergency co-ordinator at Human Rights Watch, said: “This isn’t about the conflict; it is about the government doing nothing to acknowledge the current human rights violations being committed against Tamil civilians. We are extremely concerned about the humanitarian crisis faced by thousands still trapped by fighting in the north, and these kinds of violations look set to continue. Continued intimidation of the independent press and human rights activists also continue unchecked.”
Both sides have been accused of targeting Tamil civilians caught between the warring sides. There have been reports of civilians being shelled by government artillery, while the Tamil Tigers have been accused of using civilians as human shields and shooting those trying to flee the area.
Last Thursday, the UN sent Walter Kaelin, representative of secretary general Ban Ki-moon on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), to assess the situation and meet senior government authorities. He is due to stay until tomorrow and is there at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government.
The prognosis is likely to be bleak. Charu Hogg, associate director at the international thinktank Chatham House, believes that the destruction of the Tigers as a fighting force will only mark the beginning of a new and ugly phase of civil repression. “The end of the territorial fight will undoubtedly lead to a more authoritarian regime. The fighting forces might be wiped out, but the end of the battle will not mean the end of the [Tigers] or their striking potential,” said Hogg.
“There will be severe human rights repercussions for any civilians suspected of being affiliated to or sympathetic to the [Tigers]. Disappearances have been an ugly side of this conflict and are likely to continue as a counter-insurgency tactic used by the government and the pro-government armed groups.”
Sri Lanka already has the second highest number of disappearances reported to the UN of any nation. A 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report says that more than 1,500 people were reported missing between 2005-07, with more than 1,000 reportedly “disappeared” in 2006 alone.
Last month, the government ramped up its mandatory registration of Tamils in Colombo on security grounds. There are concerns that, after the end of the conflict, any Tamil will be considered a potential security threat, leading to a rise in detentions and killings.
Fears are already rising for the safety of 60,000 IDPs, the majority of them ethnic Tamils who have fled into government-controlled areas. Reports are already surfacing of enforced detentions, abductions and disappearances at hospitals, “welfare camps” and security checkpoints in the Vavuniya and Mannar districts.
A Sri Lankan aid worker who asked to remain anonymous said there were reports that masked gangs were entering hospitals full of displaced Tamils in Vavuniya and taking patients by force.
Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka, said enforced abductions were also occurring at “welfare camps” in Jaffna and Vavuniya.
“People fleeing the conflict are being put into highly militarised transit camps or welfare camps that are alleged to be more like detention camps,” he says. “There is no proper plan with regards to resettlement and there is a presence of paramilitaries in the camps, where people are being identified and disappeared as being supporters or sympathisers of the [Tigers].”
Saravanamuttu says he “cannot emphasise enough” the importance of independent international monitoring of how the government is screening Tamil civilians fleeing the fighting.
Since the beginning of the civil war in 1983, more than 800,000 Tamils have been displaced and more than 70,000 killed. Although the Tamils are a minority, they constitute the majority in the northern and eastern provinces.
With the government likely to destroy remaining Tiger resistance in the coming days, international and local human rights campaigners say there must be an end to the lack of control over heavily armed pro-government paramilitary groups operating in the north and east of the country. Many of these groups have been accused of unlawful killings, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances and the recruitment of child soldiers since 2006.
“From 2006, the government has increasingly used allied armed groups to carry out its counter-insurgency strategy and has allowed these groups to operate with impunity in the north and east,” says Yolanda Foster, policy officer for Sri Lanka at Amnesty International.
“If you look at what happened when the government ‘liberated’ the east from Tamil forces, we saw an increase in unlawful killings, with no recourse to justice for families who have had relatives disappeared with no indication of what happened to them. In Vavuniya, where most of the camps are based, there are at least 10 armed groups operating and ready to move into the vacuum left by the defeat of the Tigers.”
Although the north has been worst affected by fighting, the UNHCR says there has also been a significant increase in the numbers of killings, abductions and injuries in Sri Lanka’s eastern provinces. A statement in January said the deteriorating security situation in the region was threatening the safe return of more than 200,000 people displaced by fighting and that families were reporting increasing intimidation and restrictions on their movements by armed groups.
Sri Lanka’s civil war has already left thousands of families in the north and east desperately searching for relatives who they say have “disappeared” without trace or been taken by force at security checkpoints or from family homes.
In its 2008 report, Human Rights Watch stated say that, despite the hundreds of alleged “disappearances” reported since 2006, little has been done to bring perpetrators to justice. It says the government has also refused to provide statistics about the number of people reported missing.
However the government rebuts these claims, saying they are unsubstantiated by any hard evidence. It also rejects as propaganda claims of disappearances and abductions at IDP checkpoints and welfare camps.
“We have a resettlement plan in place and are in complete understanding that the screening and registration process of IDPs has to be done properly. We are in a position where one in 1,000 people coming into government-controlled areas are suicide bombers, but one in 1,000 is enough for us to be diligent in our screening processes,” says Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary to the ministry of disaster management and human rights.
“The allegations that there are human rights abuses being perpetrated by the government against Tamil civilians is appalling LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] propaganda. We have 250 people who have admitted to being LTTE cadres, but those who obviously are no connection with the LTTE are moving to wherever they can.”
The government points to a UNHCR statement on 31 March as evidence that it is adhering to international standards. The statement welcomed what is called “positive developments” at IDP camps in the north, including the recent release of 371 people with special needs, but also called for increased freedom of movement for those IDPs who had already gone through the screening process.
Wijesinha also defended the government’s refusal to allow journalists into the conflict zone, saying it was not prepared to have the blood of journalists killed by the Tigers on its hands.
He denied claims by the International Federation of Journalists in Sri Lanka that violence and intimidation is being used to suppress information and silence human rights campaigners.
With the military campaign drawing to a close, there are renewed calls for the international community to put pressure on the government to agree to an establishment of a UN human rights monitoring mission to investigate and report on abuses by government forces and the Tigers throughout the country.
Meanwhile Selvi Ratnarajah continues to wonder why her husband had to die. “I’m scared of asking for information about my husband,” she said, “but I can’t bear living if I don’t know why they killed him like they did.”
• Names in this article have been changed to protect identities
Chronicle of conflict
• Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. The country has a population of 21 million, of whom about 3.2 million are of Hindu Tamil origin.
• Tamil is one of the principal languages of the Hindu Dravidian dialect, with more than 200 million speakers across India.
• Ceylon Tamils are ethnic Sri Lankans and constitute approximately half of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. They are concentrated in the north of the island, are relatively well educated, and many hold clerical and professional positions.
• Other Tamils, so-called Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka, were brought there by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries from southern India to work on the tea estates.
• Though both predominantly Hindu, Ceylon and Indian Tamil are organised under different caste systems and have little to do with each other.
• In the 1970s, growing tensions between the Hindu Ceylon Tamils and successive Sinhalese Buddhist majority governments broke out into a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the central government by Tamil militants demanding a separate state in the north-east.
• The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s conflict with the government has killed an estimated 70,000 people since it began, and left thousands more displaced.
• Violence increased in 2005 after President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election campaign, when he ruled out autonomy for Tamils in the north and east and promised to review the peace process.
• Both the military and the Tigers have been regularly accused of gross abuses of human rights by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.