An estimated 60,000 Tamils displaced by Sri Lankan military attacks in the eastern province are caught in a humanitarian crisis which aid workers say is being deliberately deepened by the Colombo government. The most recent displacements in the east join tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes by military attacks in Vanni and the northern Jaffna.
There are two aspects to the unfolding humanitarian crisis: the continued targeting of civilian areas by Sri Lankan military bombardment and the government’s blocking of relief agencies and emergency supplies to the displaced.
Fighting since July has displaced over 200,000 people, nearly all Tamils, and international press reports quote local and international aid workers charging the government is intentionally limiting humanitarian access to the newly homeless.
Last week, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), which has been in the front line of relief work in the Northeast, warned: “the current humanitarian situation in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka is reaching a critical stage.”
“Humanitarian assistance to the recently displaced people by local NGOs, INGOs and even UN agencies has now been effectively shut down by the actions of members of the Sri Lankan security forces,” the TRO warned.
The Sri Lankan government has “severely restricted, and in some cases enforced a complete embargo, on humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons who are fleeing the shelling and bombing,” the TRO protested.
Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), an umbrella for international and local aid agencies in Sri Lanka, said many of the displaced are running low on food and water.
“Part of warfare is to batter people psychologically, and physically prevent them from getting help,” Thiagarajah told the Associated Press.
Other local and international NGOs have for several weeks been protesting the imposition of bureaucratic restrictions by the government.
The government clamped down further in the wake of findings last week by international truce monitors that Sri Lankan troops massacred seventeen aid workers in the Trincomalee district. All the Action Contre La Faim (ACF) staffers except one – a Muslim – were Tamils.
Aid workers have been targeted even before the massacre of the ACF staff. Seven TRO workers abducted by Army-backed paramilitaries in January are feared dead. TRO workers and some Tamils working with INGOs, particularly in the east, have been harassed by the security forces.
“Even in a war, there are certain (groups) that are not touched, such as the Red Cross symbol and NGOs,” CHA’s Thiagarajah said.
“[But in Sri Lanka] both have been blown off the road, literally,” he told the Associated Press.
He cited two instances: on August 21 a Tamil working for the Red Cross was shot and killed in the northern district of Vavuniya and in early August, two ambulances ferrying wounded in Muttur, Trincomalee were blown off the road.
Also in August, a claymore bomb destroyed an ambulance in LTTE-held Vanni, killing five medical workers, including a doctor. International truce monitors last week blamed SLA commandos for this and other attacks in Vanni.
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) described the execution-style killings of the ACF staffers in Muttur as “one of the most serious recent crimes against humanitarian aid workers worldwide.”
But in a defiant response to international criticism stemming from the SLMM’s report, the Sri Lankan government enforced new controls on foreign aid workers, AFP reported last Friday, quoting aid officials.
Sri Lankan authorities had also begun harassing their staff in the aftermath of the SLMM’s findings, an official of an international charity told AFP.
“Our vehicles are not allowed to go in or come out of the (LTTE-controlled) east,” the official who declined to be named, said.
A spokesman for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) told AFP about 500 foreign nationals working for about 90 charities had already applied for work permits but were still awaiting them.
Then there is the ad-hoc difficulty.
At checkpoints into LTTE controlled areas in the North as well as the East troops demand that all vehicles and personnel travelling to LTTE controlled areas must have Ministry of Defence (MOD) clearance or permits.
But when contacted by the TRO, the Ministry of Defence in Colombo insists that no permits are necessary and the MoD thus does not need to give any permission.
“This has left [our] vehicles stuck at the checkpoints with no means of transporting vitally needed humanitarian relief to the IDPs,” the TRO said last week.
The Sri Lankan government’s strategy towards relief work in Tamil areas was summed by Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an NGO. He told AP: “there is a general climate that is hostile to non-governmental organizations working in the northeast and on the peace issue.”
At a stroke the new government directive on permits for international NGO staff had drastically reduced the humanitarian assistance available to the growing numbers of displaced people.
“Currently, due to the pullout of most international agencies from the NorthEast, [we are] one of a handful of organizations assisting those recently displaced by war,” the TRO said.
Inevitably, the TRO has now become a target. Last week the government froze all the bank accounts of the charity, on the grounds of investigating the financing of terrorism.
But no specific allegation has been leveled to support the government directive against the TRO, a registered charity in Sri Lanka which last year won the President’s award for tsunami reconstruction but which is repeatedly accused of being supportive or even linked to the LTTE.
And neither had the TRO – which prides itself on being the most effective and one of the largest relief organization in the Northeast – been contacted by the government about any accusations or investigations.
Even before heavy fighting broke out in the Maavil Aru area of Trincomalee on July 21 - when the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) began a major ground offensive against the Tamil Tigers –thousands of people had become displaced, dwindling the supplies of relief organizations.
The escalation of violence this year has seen repeated waves of displacements Trincomalee and Batticaloa, spurred by regular bombardments by Sri Lankan artillery bases in the remote corners of the eastern districts.
A long-standing undeclared embargo on building materials and other supplies on LTTE controlled areas, particularly in the east, has prevented the regeneration of civil infrastructure while the gradual destruction of further residential areas has thus resulted in those fleeing becoming long-term displaced.
Since shortly after the December 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka’s military in the east has maintained an unofficial blockade on cement and other building materials, as well as on supplies for agriculture and other requirements for tens of thousands of post-ceasefire returnees in LTTE controlled areas.
Grievances over the 18-month economic blockade on cement and fuel entering LTTE-controlled areas led directly to the water dispute at Maavil Aru, which provided, what some analysts say, a pretext for a planned SLA offensive.
Indeed mass displacements have occurred in Trincomalee since April 25 when Sri Lankan jets and artillery pounded several villages in Sampoor and Eacchilampatru.
Tens of thousands of people fled their homes, many of which were destroyed by the bombardments, preventing their return. Fifteen people were killed and 25 wounded.
Since then there have been several bombardments of LTTE-held parts of the district, resulting in further displacements and destruction of homes.
With the latest Sri Lankan military onslaught into the Sampoor area, displaced numbers have swollen to a staggering 50,000 from Trincomalee – along with 6-10,000 people from northern Batticaloa.
The TRO is assisting the displaced families in Kandalady (982), Vammivedduvan (2934), Vaharai (1764), Kathiraveli (1999), Palsenai (843), Verukal (1802) and Kathiraveli (1999).
Among them are almost 1,500 infants under a year old and over 3,600 other children under the age of 5.
This week, amid reports violence in the Trincomalee is easing, Sri Lankan artillery bombarded southern parts of the district, killing five displaced people and wounding dozens more.
“There is a desperate need [in the Northeast], recognized by all who are involved in humanitarian work,” the TRO said.
“The international [humanitarian] community is being prevented from responding effectively, the TRO said. “We fear that humanitarian services are being used as a weapon of war in violation of the rules of international law.”