Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Bitter wounds

Sri Lanka | The fighting may have stopped in Sri Lanka, but ethnic tensions are high as thousands of minority Tamils suffer in primitive camps

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

The streets of Sri Lanka were alive with celebration on May 19: The leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was dead and the government had declared victory over the rebels and the end of the country's 25-year-old civil war.

But not everyone was celebrating. During the final weeks of the bloody conflict, thousands of civilians were trapped in a four-mile strip of territory between Tamil Tigers willing to use their own people as human shields and government forces unwilling to suspend their offensive. Some died in the crossfire while others perished in makeshift boats they paddled out to sea. Those who made it out alive were ushered into internally displaced people (IDP) camps where misery is heaped upon misery and only a few aid groups (and no journalists) are permitted access.

News slowly trickling out of Sri Lanka's IDP camps suggests a scenario grossly understated by the Sri Lankan government and largely underreported. Disappearances have caused panic, and alleged human-rights abuses on both sides of the conflict have left scores of amputees, injured refugees, and little hope for the resettlement of Sri Lanka's Tamil population. Journalists who tell their stories risk imprisonment, deportation, or death. "How could the government celebrate when so many people are dead?" one diaspora Tamil said. "That shows that they do not consider the Tamil people as their own people."

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Ananda, a Christian Tamil who left Sri Lanka in 1993 to go to school in the United States, says the minority Tamil population has faced severe discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority who were given authority over the country when the British left in 1948. He fears the Sri Lankan government now that the Tigers are believed to be defeated and requested that his last name be withheld, noting that "the Sri Lankan government can trace me and arrest me at the airport when I arrive there for defaming the government."

Prior to the country's independence, the Tamil population invited British colonizers into their territory in the north and east to start schools and churches. Ananda says the Tamils took full advantage of the education while the Sinhalese, who were more nationalistic, resisted these opportunities. When the Sinhalese were handed control of the country, they viewed the Tamils-who are primarily Hindu-as a threat and created laws that discriminated against what they viewed as a privileged minority.

He says the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began as a peaceful resistance group on a mission for a separate state for Tamils but turned violent in the late '80s. "It was appealing to me as a teenager growing up, but I never joined it. Somehow God protected me even though I was a Hindu growing up as a teenager."

Over the decades, the Tigers have developed an experienced paramilitary organization, gaining control over the northern and eastern portions of the island. A large diaspora population-many of whom live in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu-has been a key component in funding a ground force, a sea wing, a small air force, and an elite terrorist wing called the Black Tigers, who were trained to conduct assassinations and suicide bombings. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was a victim of one of these attacks in 1991. The intelligence agency STRATFOR says the Tigers "have a record of tactical success that would make any jihadist group green with envy." Eventually the Tigers controlled almost one quarter of the island.

The European Union added the group to its terror list in 2006, and some of the group's resources began to dry up. The government began a full-scale offensive that year which would eventually trap the Tigers and kill its leader along with more than 7,000 civilians, according to the United Nations. The UN estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 have died since the war began in 1983.

The government has corralled almost 300,000 Tamils into several camps across the island, and human-rights groups are concerned about their fate. Sri Lanka's minister of disaster management and rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, told a special session of the UN Human Rights Council that his country is actively helping the refugees: "Access of course we will provide. And we have been doing so. And we intend to continue with it."

But that's not what aid groups such as the Red Cross are saying, and WORLD's contact who visits these camps on a weekly basis says it's very difficult to gain access and few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are let in. He asked to be identified only by his first name, Priya, because of concerns about continued access to the camps.


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