|A constant stream of refugees fled the war zone in the last days of the conflict [EPA]|
The latter stages of the war in Sri Lanka have been carefully choreographed and hidden from the outside world, with the voices of victims silenced through fear and insecurity.
There are allegations of war crimes, rape and torture, summary executions and prolonged bombardments by a government which, it is believed by human rights organisations, killed thousands of its own civilian citizens.
Al Jazeera has conducted its own investigation into the conflict and spoken to Tamils who have suffered and aid workers who have remained silent until now, revealing testimonies that call into question the version of events Sri Lanka’s government wants the world to believe.
Sri Lanka’s ‘welfare camps’
After enduring months of appalling conditions in the final stages of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the suffering continues for the Tamils displaced by the fighting.
One month after the government declared victory in the war, Tamils continue living in what the government calls “welfare” camps but what critics claim are little short of the world’s biggest open air prisons.
It is almost impossible for journalists to get into the camps except for strictly controlled government tours such as the one given to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, in May.
But these visits do not show the reality of life in the camps.
Crammed into camps
More than 250,000 men, women and children are crammed into conditions human rights groups call a disgrace, with as many as 15 people living in tents designed for five.
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Contrary to international law there is no freedom of movement for the displaced, and no transparency in registration and interview processes.
The standards and amounts of water, food and sanitation are well below what they should be and half of the children under age five are suffering from malnutrition.
There have been outbreaks of diseases such as Hepatitis A, chicken pox and skin ailments, and there are fears that cholera may develop.
There have already been protests in some of the camps.
Menik farm, one of the biggest camps, was supposed to cater for 100,000 people but is home to 180,000.
“We are now in refugee centres and there is no proper water, food or sanitation for us,” one Tamil refugee says.
|Some 250,000 Tamil refugees remain in what critics call open air prisons [AFP]|
“For the past three days we have not taken a bath. We are only getting one meal a day in the night. We have been living in dirt and there is a bad odour in the air everywhere.”
The refugees, who are guarded by armed security services, are scared to speak out for fear of reprisals.
Even international aid workers are scared.
“The conditions are very poor, shelters are inadequate, the water and sanitation is extremely inadequate, they are extremely overcrowded,” one aid worker says.
“And what they all share in common are the IDPs [internally displaced persons] are detained within the camps, they are surrounded by razor wire and no one’s allowed out so, yes, I think I would call them prison camps.”
There are also increasing allegations of sexual and physical abuse, impossible to prove conclusively without independent investigation which the government refuses.
“There are cases of abuse by the army, some of the cases include girls and women who have become pregnant,” the aid worker says.
“I couldn’t say who the perpetrators were … there’s also harassment and inappropriate behaviour among the IDPs, and because of the frustration those incidents are growing, but I think the more serious incidents have tended to be from the army.”
The government rejects all allegations, maintaining that it has liberated the Tamil civilians from the tyranny of the LTTE and saying the accusations are part of a propaganda campaign.
“At one time it was murder. Other times it was killings. And now it has come to the extent of rape and other sexual abuses,” says Rohita Bogollagama, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister.
“These are all made up. And in the event any such abuses is there, we have had the most disciplined administration in taking care of the IDPs all this time. Why is it surfacing now? And why is it being planted like this? Because they want to discredit every effort of the government of Sri Lanka.”
Those who are criticising the government have little power or influence.
The UN voted against pushing for a war crimes investigation, mainly because countries such as China and Russia, which supported Sri Lanka in the war, were against the move.
But the strenuous denials that the Sri Lankan military continually shelled and bombed the so-called safe zones during the war do not convince everyone, especially those who say they endured it.
One man who was in the conflict area until May 16 – just days before the war ended – says he knows the Sri Lankan military was shelling them during the final assault despite government claims all civilians were out of the zone.
|Independently verifying government views of the conflict has been impossible [AFP]|
“The rounds of gunfire were by the Sri Lankan army [SLA]. We know for sure it is the SLA because of the sound. We had difficulty in moving and running as there were people falling dead and lying all over the place and we tripping on dead bodies as we ran for our lives.
“The people died in buses, bunkers and open spaces as they were hit by bombs landing in areas wherever they were. We also saw people being shot at close range by the Sri Lankan army.”
The Sri Lankan government is refusing to allow neutral observers to examine the combat zone which gives ammunition to those who claim a clean-up operation is being carried out to hide evidence.
John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian chief, says it is “the primary responsibility of any government to establish accountability”.
“If you look at the record of the Sri Lankan government … if you look at its records on impunity … records as one of the top countries in the world with the highest number of disappearance, you may appreciate that we would like this to be an international, as opposed to a national, investigation.”
The UN is co-operating with the Sri Lankan government in developing zone five at Menik farm even though its own guidelines state displaced people should not be put in camps with more than 20,000 people.
Assurances have been given by the government that 80 per cent of the civilians will be able to return to their homes within 180 days but critics feel this is an unrealistic pledge.
The building of banks, a post office and stores lead some to believe that this is the start of a semi permanent settlement.
The government also promises peace and reconciliation, a fair political process and a life for the Tamils free from tyranny.
But there questions about who will keep the government accountable since international criticism and action have so far been insignificant at best.
Governments and aid organisations have remained silent for a variety of reasons and the people living in the squalid camps of Sri Lanka have paid the price for that silence.