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‘The greatest humanitarian crisis of the war’ – Press coverage of the Jaffna Exodus

As we mark 25 years since the Jaffna exodus, which led to over half a million Tamil men, women and children fleeing their homes, we look back at press coverage from the time.

On 21 September 1995, as the Sri Lankan military prepared to launch its offensive, new emergency regulations were imposed, granting widespread censorship powers on all war-related reporting. All reports had to be run past a government-appointed Competent Authority for Censorship before publication.

As the offensive began, death and displacement followed. On October 30, 1995, the entire town of Jaffna, the largest Tamil population centre on the island, streamed out in a mass exodus for the safety of the Vanni, which was then controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Despite the censorship, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali appealed for assistance, noting that up to 400,000 were fleeing.

“Reports of the massive displacement of the civilian population in northern Sri Lanka are a source of deep concern to the Secretary General,'' said spokesman Juan Carlos Brandt said in New York.

See more coverage below.

"A mass exodus of civilians was reported from Jaffna town today with thousands of people fleeing to the eastern Tenamarachchi section of the embattled peninsula even as the Sri Lankan security forces continued their onward march. ``Thousands of people are on the road,'' non-Governmental sources said today. ``The roads are clogged,'' the sources said, adding the movement of civilians was unprecedented. ``We are watching the situation with considerable concern,'' a United Nations aid official said.

(Hindu, 1 November 1995)


"Many civilians have been killed by government shelling and bombing, which has hit residential areas of the town. There is panic among the 600,000 Tamils on the Jaffna peninsula. The greatest humanitarian crisis of the war is in the making...Tamil civilians in Jaffna are evidently terrified by the advancing of the soldiers and are looking to the Tigers to save them from what they are convinced will be a massacre.."

Christopher Thomas in Vavuniya (London Times, 31 October 1995)


"Tamil sources said thousands of civilians were fleeing Jaffna peninsula by boat to the LTTE-held Kilinochchi region with barely any personal belongings. A senior Government official in Kilinochchi 320 kilometers (200 miles North of here, said nearly 60,000 refugees had poured into the area from Jaffna and the total would reach 300,000 soon. ``More than 10,000 people are streaming in every day,'' said the official, Thillai Natarajah, speaking in the Government held town of Vavuniya. ``Most people are housed in school buildings and temples. ``But the situation is getting desperate,'' he said. ``Many of those were drenched in rain and without a second set of clothes.'' He added that there were food shortages.

(AFP, 4 November 1995)


"While Sri Lanka's army fights to crush Tamil rebels, it's battling on another front against foreign relief workers trying to care for 400,000 war refugees. The refugees, including hundreds of wounded civilians, are caught behind the civil war's front line. Western relief agencies accuse the military of blocking desperately needed aid. Tight restrictions are preventing the delivery of drugs, tents and blankets as well as equipment to build latrines, said frustrated aid officials, who spoke on condition they not be named. ...

"About half of the 400,000 Tamil refugees are living and sleeping outdoors in heavy monsoon rains, said Gerard Peytrignet, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross here. The rest are holed up in churches, schools and relatives' homes. The refugees have very little food or proper sanitation, he added.Doctors are already seeing cases of dysentery and eye infections, and while cholera hasn't struck yet, the conditions are perfect for a deadly epidemic, relief workers warned.

"Sri Lanka's military won't let journalist cross into areas controlled by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Relief workers are so afraid of making the government angry, they refuse to photograph or shoot video of the refugees suffering and smuggle the pictures out to reporters.

"The war-zone's few hospitals are dangerously low on anaesthetics for surgery and several drugs essential to stopping the spread of diseases and treating war casualties, relief workers said. Few were willing to criticise the government publicly because they are afraid it will shut down their relief operation in retaliation.......'I think they don't want an International presence there to witness what's happening,' a senior Western relief official said.

Paul Watson (The Toronto Star, November 5, 1995 )


"...Refugees arriving in the government-held frontier town of Vavuniya yesterday described how tens of thousands fled with only the bags they could carry as monsoon rains lashed down. They walked or rode by bicycle for about 20 miles to other parts of Tiger-run territory. In the Jaffna peninsula, schools, hospitals and government buildings are overflowing with refugees. The unlucky ones are seeking shelter from the monsoon rains under trees and shop fronts.

Philip Sherwell in Vavuniya (Electronic Telegraph, 6 November 1995)


" Sri Lanka has banned international agencies from aiding Tamil refugees over fears that some are not impartial. We do not intend to permit any outside agencies, including the UN...to carry out independent operations", said Foreign Minister Laksham Kadiragamar. He also expressed displeasure at the appeal made by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, whom he accused of exaggerating the situation. Tens of thousands of Tamil refugees are fleeing a government assault on the Tamil Tiger stronghold in the north."

(BBC,  6 November 1995)


UNHCR Resident Representative Peter Meijer told the press... 'about three fourths of the population of Jaffna had been displaced.' Medicine Sans Frontiers Country Director said the organisation normally works in colloboration with the Health Ministry and that the organisation had so far not been called by the Sri Lanka Government to assist in the matter.

(Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 5 November 1995)


"On the idyllic island of Sri Lanka today, a reported half-million Tamil refugees are fleeing troops of the central government homeless and exposed to monsoon rains, falling sick and dying from-disease. The Sri Lankan government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has insisted that it be the entity to distribute international humanitarian aid, complaining that nongovernmental organizations have permitted relief supplies to benefit the secessionist Tamil movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

"Since most of the refugees who fled the government forces closing in on the nothern city of Jaffna are now in territory controlled by the Tigers, relief supplies channeled through the government could not help those in need, whatever the intentions of the government.

"Because the war zone has been closed to reporters and cameras, the human calamity visited upon the Tamils has become a tree falling unheard in the forest. Yet their suffering is as grievous as that of refugees in the former Yogoslavia.

"For the sake of a single humane standard, the United States and other governments should insist that humanitarian aid to refugees be delivered under international supervision. There is also a need for outside parties willing to help broker a ceasefire and a negotiated peace between the Tamil minority and the Sri Lankan government. As in Bosnia, millions of civilians must be saved from the madness of their leaders."

(Boston Globe Editorial, 27 November 1995)


"Estimates of how many Tamils have fled the besieged northern Jaffna peninsula vary from the government's 180,000 to as many as 500,000, some without shelter, but most finding accommodation in camps, old thatched huts or with friends or relations.

"The civilians are fleeing Jaffna where the armed forces are expected to capture Jaffna town, capital of the rebels' wouldbe homeland, any day. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting for the homeland in the north and east of tropical Sri Lanka, have ferried civilians in boats across Jaffna lagoon to camps on the mainland, more and more filtering through to the mainland from this frontline town. .. Families arriving in Vavuniya on Thursday said shelling had decreased in recent days in Jaffna and dry weather meant an easier time for the estimated 110,000 people gathered in Kilinochchi, eight km (five miles) south of the Jaffna lagoon.

``People are still coming into Kilinochchi because they are frightened the (armed forces') operation might start up anywhere after Riviresa,'' one man said as he was chanelled into the Thandikulam army camp for classification.

"Operation Riviresa was launched on October 17 in the north of the Jaffna peninsula and has brought the army into the heart of Jaffna town itself.

``People are running here and there to find relations at Kilinochchi,'' another refugee said. ``People are coming back up from Colombo to find their loved ones. A number are at the mainland ferry hoping they may be on the next boat to cross the lagoon.''

(Reuters, 2 December 1995)

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