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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Devi Segaram: She and her daughter fled across a field dividing rebels and Army forces. Now at a camp near Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, she hopes to join her son in Colombo.
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    Have backpack, will learn: Children headed to class at a refugee camp Monday. As civilians flee fighting in Sri Lanka, officials are bracing for a fresh influx.
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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.

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.

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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.

A darker fate may await suspected rebels who cross as civilians into government-held areas, where the military tries to weed out LTTE infiltrators. The government says it has detained 32 self-confessed militants and is monitoring another 218 people in camps. But aid workers and church groups have received reports of men being separated from families at Kilinochchi, the rebel capital seized last month.

Western diplomats say they are pressing Sri Lanka to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor the screening and to register those who arrive. Government officials have publicly rebuffed the idea, however. They insist that as a sovereign power fighting domestic insurgents there is no legal requirement for international observers.

Aid workers point out that war refugees can easily be separated in the chaos and that those reported as missing may simply have been sent to other camps. Although the ICRC had begun helping to trace relatives, its program is currently on hold pending further talks with the government.

But there is some trepidation over a repeat of the tactics of the 1990s, when Tamil men taken out of military-run camps joined the ranks of Sri Lanka's disappeared. Some were later traced to detention centers, but many never came back. Fed by LTTE propaganda, such fears die hard among Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

Still, the most pressing crisis is in the jungles of the Vanni where at least 70,000 civilians are caught between the advancing Army and the cornered LTTE, which has menaced those who seek to flee. While Sri Lanka has insisted that its troops are doing their best to limit civilian casualties, aid groups say the toll of dead and injured is rising.

"My biggest concern is that people are dying … the real crisis is up there," says Annemarie Loof, the country head of Médicins Sans Frontières, a relief agency working in the camps.

Refugees in Vavuniya tell of desperate treks through no man's land, dodging bullets and artillery shells that fell "like monsoon rain," before being evacuated. All cited the constant bombardment and lack of food and water in the war zone as the reason for their escape. Many said they had moved several times due to the fighting.

A dash across a battlefield

Devi Segaram, an English teacher, joined around 1,000 others who waited till dawn on Feb. 7 before cutting across a field that lay between the two forces. On their way out, they ran into a group of five LTTE soldiers, who fired warning shots to stop them. When the refugees kept running, the shots came closer, and two young boys fell down, she says. But Ms. Segaram and her daughter, a high-school graduate, didn't hesitate.

"We came running. I held her hand, and we just kept running," she says. Within half an hour, they caught sight of soldiers who called them over with a megaphone. Within days, she was in the camp.

Now she says her hope is eventually to be reunited with a son who lives in the capital, Colombo, far from her war-torn homeland.

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