Refugees in their Own Country

By Iain Atack

Armed police surrounding a house filled with families of the "disappeared," buildings reduced to rubble by Tamil bombs, tens of thousands of refugees crowded into schools, churches and Hindu temples, and worst of all, the charred remains of passengers in a bus burned by Muslim militants. These are some of the sights I saw in Sri Lanka from May 1990 to March 1991 as a volunteer with Peace Brigades International and Quaker Peace and Service.

By Iain Atack

Sri Lanka, an island roughly the size of Ireland, has a population of about 16 million. Roughly 75% of the population are Sinhalese, while just under 20% are Tamil. Tamils, however, comprise almost 95% of the population in the north of the island, and almost 50% in the east. About 5% of Sri Lankans are Muslims, who are also Tamil speakers, but they make up about 35% of the population in the east of the country. In the last decade Sri Lanka has been torn by civil war. In the north-east, Tamil guerrillas have been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, leftist south Sinhalese militants have waged quite effective campaigns to overthrow the central government.

War between the Sri Lankan army and the most powerful of the Tamil militant groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE], began in earnest in 1983, after the Tigers attacked an army patrol in northern Jaffna District. Three thousand Tamils died in the anti-Tamil riots that followed, to which the government, at best, turned a blind eye.

In July 1987 president J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India signed the Indo-Lanka Agreement. Tens of thousands of Indian soldiers belonging to the euphemistically named Indian Peace-Keeping Force [IPKF} were dispatched to north-eastern Sri Lanka, where they waged bitter warfare against the LTTE. The last of the IPKF troops left Sri Lanka in March 1990, accused of widespread human rights abuses against Tamil civilians. The Indo-Lanka Agreement and the arrival of the IPKF on Sri Lankan soil intensified the anti-government campaign of leftist Sinhalese militants, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna [JVP] or People's Liberation Front, in the south of the country. The JVP, formed in the late 1960s, had organized an unsuccessful armed insurrection in 1971. They were proscribed and driven underground again in 1983, following the anti-Tamil riots.

The JVP have successfully organized the educated youth, and poor rural peasantry of the Sinhalese south of the island. In 1988 and 1989 the JVP fused Sinhalese nationalism with anti-imperialist [i.e., anti-Indian] and Marxist rhetoric to mount a brutal insurrection against the Sri Lankan government. Wide-scale strikes, enforced by murder of non-cooperators, brought the country to a virtual standstill and almost toppled the government.

In retaliation, Sri Lanka's security forces unleashed a wave of terror of their own. A European human rights team estimated in November 1990 that as many as 60,000 people had "disappeared" in southern Sri Lanka since 1987.

Thousands remain in camps to this day, and the "disappearances" continue, on a smaller scale, especially in the "deep south" of the country, even though the JVP insurrection was effectively crushed in late 1989 and early 1990. The repression and the killings were protected and even promoted by provisions in Sri Lanka's emergency laws and Prevention of Terrorism Act.

PBI initially sent a team to Sri Lanka in November 1989 to accompany lawyers doing habeas corpus work. Habeas corpus is a means of tracing "disappeared" or detained persons through the legal system by forcing the government to produce them before the courts or else explain what has happened to them. Several Sri Lankan lawyers had been killed for doing habeas corpus work, and others had fled the country.

In June 1990 we began working with Batty Weerakoon, lawyer for Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu, mother of well-known Sri Lankan journalist Richard de Zoysa. De Zoysa had been abducted in the middle of the night on Feb.18. His body was found washed up on shore in Moratuwa to the south of the city the next day. De Zoysa ran the Colombo office of the International Press Service [IPS]. He had written about what he termed Sri Lanka's "apocalyptic" human rights situation, and on the wider implications of the emergency laws for civil liberties. As a journalist he undoubtedly had contact with the JVP, but this cannot be construed in any way as support for them.

Dr. Saravanamuttu witnessed the abduction of her son, and was able to identify a senior Colombo police officer as among his abductors. She was never allowed to submit her evidence before a Sri Lankan court.

On May 16 Dr. Saravanamuttu received a death threat, handwritten in English. It warned her, in part: "MOURN the death of your son. As a Mother you must do so. Any other step's will Result in your death at the Most unexpected time [sic]." The letter was signed "JUSTICE HONOUR AND GLORY TO THE MOTHERLAND." Two weeks later Batty Weerakoon received a similar letter in Sinhala, warning that "action to win human rights for people who have been traitorous to the country is itself traitorous action. Therefore please be warned that your life rests on the manner in which you react to this letter."

The PBI team began by accompanying Weerakoon 12 hours a day. We maintained an obvious presence with him at home, in his travels and in court.

Dr Saravanamuttu changed residences frequently and came out only to attend hearings in the Magistrates Court in Moratuwa into de Zoysa's murder. Towards the end of June the PBI team began a 24-hour presence with her. She left the country in July when it became obvious she was not going to be allowed to give her evidence before the court.

After six months in exile, she returned to Sri Lanka this February. She has become a leading figure in the Mothers' Front, speaking out on behalf of those who have also lost family members to the political violence endemic to Sri Lanka.

While I was a PBI team member we maintained a presence at public meetings of the Organisation of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared [OPFMD]. Since its inception in the spring of 1990 OPFMD had collected information on thousands of "disappearances" in the south of the country. The meetings put pressure on the government to stop the killings, release detainees and reveal what information it had about the "disappeared."

With another PBI volunteer, I witnessed an example of the intimidation tactics used by the police against the people of Sri Lanka at an OPFMD meeting held in a private home on the edge of town. Soon after it began police jeeps pulled up outside the house and unloaded several uniformed and plainclothes policemen. Armed plainclothes policemen quickly placed themselves around the building. The officer-in-charge observed the meeting from the front door of the house.

An hour or so later the officer radioed the nearby police station, and shortly after that they all left, having made no effort to break up the meeting.

It was reported that on June 11, 1990 the LTTE seized the police station in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka, abducting and killing more than a hundred Sinhalese and Muslim Policemen. Within a week all-out civil war between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had resumed, ending a fragile 14-month truce.

After completing my four-month term with PBI in September I spent six months as a volunteer relief worker based in Batticaloa with Quaker Peace and Service [QPS]. QPS supports reconciliation work and development projects internationally on behalf of British and Irish Quakers.

The Sri Lankan army moved into Batticaloa District during the summer of 1990. Many Tamils fled the areas through which the army was advancing. At one point more than 200,000 people, at least half the population of the district, had left their homes. Some stayed with friends or relatives, but many gathered at schools. churches or Hindu temples. Those unable to find shelter in buildings lived in cadjun [coconut-leaf] huts or even under trees and bushes.

Tamils have every reason to fear the Sri Lanka army. We constantly heard stories of Tamils being detained and "disappeared." They were taken from buses stopped at military checkpoints, rounded up at refugee camps or even seized while harvesting rice. As recently as this June, a year after the fighting resumed. It was reported that the army massacred 123 Tamils in Kokadicholai, a village in the southern part of the district, in retaliation for a Tamil military ambush.

Despite the presence of the Sri Lankan army, the Tamil guerrillas continue to operate freely in large parts of the district.

Conflict between Muslims and Tamils adds another dimension to the war. In August 1990 more than 200 Muslims were murdered in massacres attributed to the Tamil military in two towns in Batticaloa District, Kattankudy and Eravur. As a result of such incidents many Muslims also became refugees, moving from outlying areas to camps in towns that now form isolated Muslim enclaves in the district. Tensions between Muslims and Tamils have remained high since then, resulting in occasional outbursts of ugly violence.

The presence of both Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan army and communal conflict between Muslims and Tamils, makes travel into and around the district difficult and dangerous for Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims alike. The role of the QPS team, which is still working in Batticaloa District, is to help nongovernmental organization [NGOS] and the Sri Lankan government bring in relief supplies and deliver them to refugees.

The team has also escorted convoys of trucks carrying relief supplies from the edge of the war zone through a dozen or so military checkpoints to Batticaloa town. The neutral presence of expatriate QPS volunteers in clearly-marked vehicles gives Muslim and Tamil relief workers from the district and Sinhalese truck drivers from Colombo enough confidence and security to carry out their much-needed refugee relief work.

I first came Batticaloa as part of a QPS convoy in early September 1990. Apart from the Muslim community of Eravur and a string of army camps, the final 30 km stretch of road between Valaichchenai and Batticaloa was deserted, its villages like ghost towns, buildings pock-marked by bullets or blasted by shells and explosives. In December, the army and the government began shifting refugees to "transit camps" along the road, but most could not afford to rebuild their nearby homes or were simply too frightened to return to them.

When I finally left Sri Lanka in July neither the Tigers nor the government seemed interested in negotiating a political settlement, despite a military stalemate in the north-east. Distrust of the other side runs deep for both. Long-term reconciliation efforts between the different communities, necessary for any lasting peace, are extremely difficult under such conditions.

One of the speakers at an OPFMD meeting confided his bleak view of the situation: "Sri Lanka used be known as a paradise, but now it is just a paradise for violence." What hope there is comes from the courage of the families of the "disappeared" and the will to survive of the thousands of Sri Lankans forced to become refugees in their own country.

Iain Atack is now pursuing a Masters in peace studies in Ireland.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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