Bitter wounds

"Bitter wounds" Continued...

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

Priya, a Christian native of Sri Lanka, describes the work in these camps as "colossal." The government denies using heavy artillery against civilians during the final months of the conflict, but Priya tells a different story: Crippling injuries are common, and 80 percent of the registration cards he filled out for refugee families listed at least one family member who had died during the fighting. Much of what he has seen was difficult for him to describe: "I saw a child about 6 years old whose entire back was blasted away. He could not walk. He could not sleep. The only way he was comfortable was sleeping on his stomach, and he could not sleep on his stomach for a long time. This poor guy was suffering. For the first time in my life I heard a doctor say, 'I pray this child will die rather than survive.'"

One woman was missing both of her legs and one hand. She gave birth after arriving in a refugee camp and could not nurse her own child. A UNICEF survey in March concluded that one in four children under 5 had amputated limbs.

The camps are overcrowded and primitive, Priya added. One particular camp in Pulmoddai was constructed after refugees were forced out of a school they had been living in. A patch of jungle was cleared, tents were erected and fences were installed around the perimeter to keep out wild elephants. But the snakes found a way in, and four refugees were bitten on the first night alone. Priya helped get torches into the camp, but authorities would not allow batteries. Aid workers persisted and obtained approval to deliver 200 batteries a day, and it took one week to supply enough batteries for each family.

Kidnappings and murders are also plaguing the IDP camps as government officials comb through the refugees, hunting for Tamil rebels and youth they fear could embrace the Tigers' cause. In May, the bodies of 11 young women with suspected ties to the LTTE were reportedly found with their throats slit at the Menik Farm camp. Priya says 170 people have disappeared from another camp without a trace. And these are the few stories that have made it out of the camps.

"The crux of what is happening in these refugee camps doesn't come out. Even we are very careful to whom we are speaking and what we are speaking because the little we can do we might not be able to do," Priya said. "Even speaking to you might put me in a position where we might not be able to get back into the camps. Most people keep silent."

Lasantha Wickramatunga refused to keep silent as editor of the highly independent Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, and he was assassinated on the streets of Colombo on Jan. 8. His obituary, which he had written prior to his death, was published around the world. "I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts," Wickramatunga wrote.

The press freedom watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, says Sri Lanka is the "least respectful of media freedom" among countries with democratically elected governments. Priya claims that 65 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka during the past 10 to 15 years, and foreign journalists are seldom allowed entrance. Both the BBC and Al Jazeera received threats from the brother of Sri Lanka's president after producing incriminating reports about the country, and three doctors are in custody after talking to media about conditions in the IDP camps.

Human-rights groups had hoped the special session of the UN Human Rights Council on May 26 would properly address these atrocities and take action. Its European members requested an investigation into widespread reports of war crimes committed by both government troops (accused of shelling civilians and shooting Tigers who had surrendered) and Tamil Tigers (accused of using civilians as human shields and preventing their escape).

Instead, the council "commended measures taken by the government of Sri Lanka to address the urgent needs of the internally displaced persons" and called on the international community to help fund the country's reconstruction. "I don't know why the world community is so oblivious to these obvious facts," Priya said. "I don't know whether they are being bought over by the government or they are being bribed to say certain things. I just don't understand." Priya's access to the IDP camps will expire soon, and he hopes international pressure will force Sri Lanka to change its policies.


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