Distrust between Sri Lanka, rebels hampers tsunami aid

Villagers in the rebel north tell the Army to leave, while NGOs try to stay out of politics.

No one knows who lighted the fire. Less than 48 hours after the tsunami hit northern Sri Lanka, a school sheltering hundreds of displaced people burned to the ground.

No lives were lost, but the incident marked a turning point in an unprecedented Army effort to distribute disaster relief in an area long sympathetic to Tamil Tigers separatists. Villagers blamed the Army for setting the blaze - this after they had rebuffed offers of aid and told the soldiers to leave their camp.

In Sri Lanka, the tsunami did not fully wash away old suspicions hardened by decades of ethnic conflict. The army quickly learned that even at such a time of great need, many people prefer to get help from their own kind. After three days the Army retreated from refugee camps on the Jaffna peninsula. Similarly, international aid groups have hit snags as they try to navigate the delicate political situation here.

"Many lives have been lost in this region as a direct result of the Army's role in the past, and too much bitterness," says Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam, who has lived in Jaffna for the last decade. "So naturally the people prefer the civilian help or [Tamil Tiger] help."

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war between Tamil separatists in the north and east and the Sinhalese majority in the south. Around 30,000 people are said to have been killed in Sri Lanka by the tsunami.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tigers are formally known, have a legendary organizational capability. They have been credited by nongovernmental organizations as well as local people for having come to the people's help within an hour of the tsunami waters receding.

"I lost three of my four children, but the LTTE got me the bodies of all three back even though it took two days for them to find all of them," says S. Erudaya Rani at one Jaffna camp. "They also had rations and food to give us immediately."

According to the United Natons, About 2,500 people are dead and missing on the Jaffna peninsula, while about 1,647 are injured. The figures increase as you go farther down the east coast - also LTTE-held areas.

Political countercharges

There are complaints that government aid took three days to arrive from the south to help the thousands whose homes and lives were washed away from the 12 miles of the affected Jaffna coastline.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga contradicted the criticism saying earlier in a statement: "It is unfortunate that the LTTE and its agents are now carrying on a campaign [that says] LTTE-held areas do not receive disaster aid from the government.... The people in the affected areas of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mallaitivu have in fact been receiving more government assistance than those affected in the south," she said naming three northern areas where most of Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils live.

But the military has stepped away from delivering that aid. Temporary camps sheltering the tsunami victims are run with a combination of civil authority, international and local NGOs, LTTE leaders, and the local Tamil Rehabilitation Organization or TRO, which is funded by the Tamil diaspora living in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

The TRO, which has strong political affiliations with the LTTE, said earlier that a lack of trust between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers has undermined the delivery of food, water and supplies.

"For the last two years we have a tenuous cease-fire with the government where there has been no war and no peace either," says M. Kadir, TRO's administrative officer in Jaffna.

"We are already running 41 camps that house displaced people from the war.... We are now running many more [as a result of the tsunami]," says Kadir. "We are not new to this job, while the government is - especially in this area."

Tigers need outside help

But Kadir admits that the LTTE does not have the funds to house the thousands of displaced people - the most dire need now for the people of Jaffna who have passed the first phase of emergency relief.

While the Tigers would like to blame all relief hiccups on the government of Sri Lanka, there is evidence that the Tigers could well be sabotaging their own reputation among the international community that has come in droves to help.

UNICEF officials Thursday said that there had been three verified cases of Tamil Tiger recruitment of tsunami-affected children. The Tigers have been known to use child soldiers in the past. Two of the three were released following an appeal by UNICEF.

Politics of aid

There are also complaints of politics getting in the way of relief efforts. A senior international NGO official says that the TRO created problems by insisting that the international community provide tents to house the displaced in some of the camps instead of making use of local talents and engaging local craftsmen to build thatched huts and tin roofs.

The NGO found itself in a bind: It knew that tents made less economic sense in the long run, but it was also a matter of "visibility" for their TRO partners. "If we don't give the tents then someone else will," the NGO official said.

All this just created further delays and reinforced a sense that in LTTE-controlled areas, there is no question about who is running the show when it comes to relief work.

"Look, in general, we have no problems about whom we deal with," says Bill Barkle, an official with the UN High Commission for Refugees in Jaffna. "You just go from one administration into another administration when you reach LTTE checkpoints. That's just the way things are."

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