Sri Lankan refugees face open-ended detention in camps
Relieved to be out of the fighting, they also chafe at strict rules and often grim conditions.
VAVUNIYA, SRI LANKA
The camp's dry goods store opened only a day ago, but its windows are already greasy and smudged from the many faces pressed up against it. As workers stack bags of rice, lentils, and flour on crude wooden shelves, war-weary Tamil refugees stare longingly inside. None have money to spend here, only time to kill.Skip to next paragraph
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Behind them, a resettlement camp for 2,800 people is taking on an air of permanence. Classrooms are being built to house the children who study outside in crisp white uniforms. A post office, bank, clinic, and vocational training center have already opened.
Inside razor-wired fences, soldiers patrol the dusty lanes. And there is relief and joy among those who escaped the battlefield carnage. But there is also frustration and anguish over the strict rules and the prospect of open-ended detention.
On a 1,000-acre site nearby, a vast refugee town for as many as 200,000 people is planned, as authorities brace for an even larger exodus from what appears to be the final stand of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). So far, some 32,000 of those fleeing the fighting have been evacuated to Vavuniya. Most are crammed into schools and other public buildings until more camps are carved out of the red-dirt soil.
For those in the most makeshift facilities, conditions are grim. "It's so bad here, I want to go back to the Vanni. We're like prisoners here," says Mr. Balachandran, who sleeps with 47 others on the floor of a squalid classroom.
Once the fighting is over, the Tamils of the Vanni, the final stronghold of the LTTE, are supposed to return home. Sri Lanka's government says it must first de-mine the conflict zone, a process that will take many months, if not years. To guard against LTTE subversion, refugees aren't permitted to leave the camps. Nor are visitors allowed in.
"We're not detaining anyone. We're not separating anyone. We're keeping them in a safe place," P.S.M. Charles, a district administrator, told reporters on a visit organized by the military.
A need to improve conditions
Authorities say conditions will improve once more camps are built and international aid flows more freely. Sri Lanka has asked foreign donors to shoulder much of the cost. A cash economy should emerge once work initiatives start within the camp, bringing customers to the newly opened cooperative store, whose manager reckons that its sunflower-yellow concrete walls will still be standing in three years' time.
Officials say a faster timetable is possible, once the fighting ends. "The government is trying to think in terms of getting 80 percent of people back [to their homes] by the end of the year," says Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary general of the government's peace secretariat.