Video of atrocities (Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka)

After civil war, war crimes?

Asia | Workers say Sri Lankan government is abusing Tamil 'refugees'

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

The problems seem to multiply in Sri Lanka's Tamil refugee camps-or detention camps, as they are pointedly described by human-rights groups. Four months after the end of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, soldiers still guard the camp perimeters as government personnel comb through the ranks, looking for those tied to the terrorist group it fought for decades. The government has banned the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from working in the camps, few refugees have been reunited with family members, prostitution is taking hold in some areas, and monsoon season is around the corner.

Those are just the beginning of Sri Lanka's post-war troubles. A video showing the execution of Tamil civilians at the hands of government forces during the final months of the conflict was viewed around the world last month. And as the UN called for an investigation into the alleged war crimes, Sri Lankan courts sentenced native journalist J.S. Tissanayagam-recently lauded by U.S. President Barack Obama-to 20 years of hard labor for reports criticizing the government.

Tissanayagam was the first journalist sentenced under anti-terrorism laws that have been widely viewed with suspicion. "It is a deadly place for local journalists who are still brave and foolish enough to report critically of the military and government," Wake Forest University political science professor Neil DeVotta said.

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Now, human-rights groups are taking a closer look at Sri Lanka's "anti-terrorist" campaign, and at least one Sri Lankan Christian hopes the international community will begin to see behind the government's façade.

Last May, Sri Lankan forces drove the militants into a narrow strip of coastal land, defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and trapping thousands of Tamil civilians in the process. The war was conducted without the presence of international media, but stories of cornered Tamil civilians-used as human shields by the Tigers and ignored or targeted by Sri Lankan soldiers-began to surface.

The video of an alleged Tamil civilian execution provides what could be the first solid evidence of international war crimes committed by the government. The video shows a naked and blindfolded man huddled on the ground as a soldier kicks him in the head and ends his life with a single gunshot. He is surrounded by blood-stained bodies.

The video was given to Britain's Channel 4 news by the press freedom group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a multi-ethnic group of journalists who were exiled from the island. Officials in Colombo, the capital, deny its authenticity-claiming pro-Tiger advocacy groups "doctored" the video-but those wary of the government's agenda say it's authentic.

In the camps, meanwhile, women are being taken out, used as prostitutes, and then returned, according to Priya, a Christian who spoke to WORLD and visits the camps at least once a week. His ministry also provides food for the refugees. He asked to be identified by his first name only, fearful that the government could restrict his ministry. Few aid workers are granted access to the displaced, he said, and even his cooks are forced to set up their kitchen outside the camp.

"I'm so sad to say the international community has totally let down these people," Priya told me. "I think the international community has decided that all the Tamils [who were] living under the Tiger-controlled areas are Tigers. They are not. They were oppressed by the Tigers when they were living there, they thought they could have a better life coming over here and they are suffering even more."

Although some have managed to escape, very few refugees have been allowed to leave the camps, and many still do not know whether their family members are alive or dead. Priya said one woman he met roams the camp, asking if anyone knows the whereabouts of her husband and three children.

The government had promised to begin the reunification process through the ICRC before it banned the organization from the camps. "All this is hogwash," Priya said. "This is how they fool the international community."

Priya's ministry-funded solely by church support worldwide-will end its food program at the end of the year, forcing the government to step in and care for the Tamils. His next project involves coordinating people to sponsor education for children of the displaced.


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