There are many lessons the international community can learn from Sri Lanka. One is how the Sri Lankan government and the people at large responded humanely to a humanitarian crisis engineered by the LTTE leader Prabhakaran. When defeat was imminent, to prompt the West and India to intervene, Prabhakaran infiltrated a government declared NFZ and attempted to cause a human catastrophe.
The swift response of the Sri Lankan government not only rendered a stunning defeat on the LTTE but rescued suffering Tamil civilians of over 260,000. By forcibly taking the civilians as a human shield, the LTTE subjected Tamil civilians to untold misery. A sea of war weary civilians defied the LTTE who threatened and even shot those who attempted to break the human shield. The government forces transformed from defender of the nation to protector of the IDPs. The images and footage show the military providing the tens of thousands of civilians running away from the LTTE. The military provided first aid, water, food, clothes and eventually shelter. Manik Farm was the single largest complex that housed the biggest grouping of displaced Tamils numbering approx 260,000.
With the Government’s announcement of the closure of the infamous Manik Farm in Cheddikulam, past is being raked up again with allegations of conditions being squalid, terrible, un-inhabitable etc ., At the beginning and the height of its operations, similarities were drawn to Concentration Camps of Germany and human rights activists, spurred on by the LTTE remnants overseas, were having a hay-day in waving this as a red-flag to rouse the international community to take action against the Sri Lankan Government for HR violations & war crimes and this continues to be the case.
To those who were aware of the true situation in Manik Farm, these were inflammatory statements stemming from LTTE remnants who were reeling with the unbelievable defeat of the once indefatigable LTTE .
The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who lived in Manik Farm had far better conditions than the horrible conditions they were subjected to, during their flight with the LTTE for over 10 months. They had decent shelters which were issued by UN & Other aid agencies, provided to all refugees / internally displaced persons in similar conditions, across the world. So why the special emphasis on the Sri Lankan IDP Centres ? In fact Zones 0 (Kadirgramar Welfare Village) and 1 (Ananda Kumaraswamy Welfare Village) which had been set up by the Government before the 2009 April exodus, had very firmly built semi -permanent houses out of galvanized sheets and thatched roofs like many normal rural homes and nearly 25,000 IDPs who arrived in late 2008 and early 2009 were already living there very comfortably before the larger influx in April/May 2009.
The exodus & initial phase – Facing the unprecedented flood of over 260,000 people overnight from the No-fire zone left the government with no choice but scramble to provide accommodation / meals & all infrastructures within a very short period. The mammoth taskforce brought together different govt agencies to work round the clock in setting up the required facilities. This was an unprecedented and a massive coordination effort, which became one of the biggest disaster management efforts in the world. Manik Farm area which had been hitherto, under the LTTE, was sans infrastructure – i.e – good roads, water /drainage and electricity etc. Therefore, it is in this back-ground that Government had to re-establish infrastructure from scratch, to cater to the large number of people. The Government opted for Manik farm, an abandoned farm land in flat terrain bordered by the Medawachchiya-Mannar main road on the north and south by Malwathu Oya, the only river in the Northern Province which could be fed from the Mahaweli system in case of a scarcity of water.
Ministry of Health played the biggest role in providing emergency healthcare for the malnourished and wounded / sickly people who had lived off mere water and rice for months. The depravation of basic needs by the LTTE had taken its toll and the initial weeks saw many die due to sustained injuries, mal-nourishment etc., especially amongst the elderly and children. Hundreds of doctors and nurses battled day and night without electricity and basic facilities in the initial weeks to save thousands more. I have been witness to these miracles and watched them work tirelessly late into the night – these are the unsung heroes of Manik farm.
Return of Normalcy – Once the initial scurry had abated general life sprung in the welfare villages, with Ministry of Health and Sri Lanka Army playing key roles in providing continued healthcare, food & nutrition & infrastructure / security. This was immediately followed by the Ministry of Education, who set up temporary schools within a couple of months – schools swung into sessions supported by teachers from the education dept who were inmates at the Centres along with volunteers. With normalcy and stability returning, children were able to sit for Year 5 scholarship exams and GCE AL exams in August with excellent results – a mere months later. The Grama Sevaka Niladharis (GNs) had set up offices within the Centres and spent days taking census, verifying claims of ownership to homelands and providing temporary IDs, Birth , marriage & death certificates etc for those who had lost same and many more such services which were immediately needed. The first marriage to take place in the IDP Centres was in June 2009 between Mr. S Nagenthirarajah Principal of Kachchilaimadu GTMS, Oddusudan and Ms Balarani GN of Teraru, Oddusudan, who had met at the IDP Centre. Life was indeed going back to normal and people were moving on, planning their future.
Thriving and bustling little towns had sprung up within the Centres by June/ July with enterprising IDPs cashing in on opportunities of doing business. There were grocery shops, teashops, clothes & toy shops, tailoring and even gold-smiths that operated in each centre with produce being brought into the Centres by vendors after security clearance. Basic rations were provided by the Government and community kitchens were run by the Army & inmates themselves for basic food, maintained at WHO recommended nutrition levels. However they were still able to purchase other requirements from these shops run by the IDPs themselves. Several Banks had branches & ATMs within the centres and Bank of Ceylon, one of the first to set up shop, collected over 250Million Ruppees in cash and gold for safekeeping, on their first day of business from the IDPs with several other banks equally attracting similar sums in deposits and remittances from overseas. These were not completely destitute people but merely displaced.
Psychosocial Activities – When I approached the Ministry of Health to carry out psychosocial activities in the IDP welfare villages, it was met with much enthusiasm and encouragement and the then Secretary of Health Dr Athula Kahandaliyange gave all the support needed for us to travel into the Centres almost every other weekend in 2009. Doctors H D B Herath, A. S. A. Safras, Ishanka Thalagala. Lanka Jayasingha , were some of the key figures who personally spent time and effort to make the many activities a great success. The Sri Lanka Army too, helped immensely to arrange and coordinate activities and officers Col Namal Bandara, CO of Zone 4 and Col Mahanada were personally involved in ensuring the success of so many programmes. The support rendered by Maj Gen Kamal Gunaratne, SF Commander , Wanni and Competent Authority for IDPs at the time, in arranging 100 students to be brought to Colombo in December 2009 for an excursion and exhibition at Colombo Hilton and thereafter in setting up of psychosocial centers in re-settled/returnee areas, was immense.
These were efforts of humanity than any desire to suppress and subjugate. They bear true testimony to the genuine kindness displayed to the people of the IDP welfare villages during their stay. This was the general ethos and culture that was overwhelming prevalent and displayed by all those who worked at the Centres.
The psychosocial activities that were carried out touched over 3000 children within Zones 4 and 0 – being two of the largest zones of the 7 zones at Manik Farm. Interacting and closely associating children who had undergone untold misery and terror during the war and final phases leading to its end, we were witness to the blossoming out of these children, to their resiliency and innate desire to move forward and look towards a brighter future. The Happiness Centre (Psychosocial centre) set up within the 2 zones provided children with opportunity to explore their creativity through arts, crafts, music, dance, learn computer, as well as simply play and experience for the first time, a carefree childhood – a basic birthright of any child, denied by a war not of their creation. In which concentration camp would these have been allowed ?
Restriction of Access to IDP Centres – The Government is accused of limiting access to the welfare villages. The country had just won after a terrifying struggle of 30 years, loss of hundreds of thousands of lives both, civilians and armed forces and billions of rupees spent, not to mention the devastating effect on generations of Sri Lankans and the economy. The LTTE was named by the FBI as the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world, not because they were babes in the wood. Considering the cunning and ruthless nature of LTTE it was known and expected that the LTTE would infiltrate the Centres under the guise of civilians – this was a huge security risk and threat which had to be controlled until they were weeded out. It is therefore natural and normal under such circumstances, that movement in/out of Centres would be restricted and no government can be found fault for such measures.
None of the reports by UN or other agencies highlight the fact that the IDP Centres were made “Open Centres” by early December 2009 and the Tamil civilians within the Centres were allowed to freely leave and return as they pleased, until resettlement. The barrier at Medawachchiya which controlled access into the Northern region, was removed by December 2009 too and the movement of traffic was further eased. Therefore, any claims that these were nazi -style internment Camps are completely unfounded, except in the figments of imagination of pro-LTTE agencies and populace.
Flood & Disease – another famous accusation is that the Centres were flooded and people suffered due to this, with spread of disease being rampant. I was in Manik Farm on that fateful day when there was a heavy deluge after many months of drought. Certain sections of the Zone 4 were flooded with about a foot of water. I saw the expediency with which the Army moved into removing the tents from this area and ensuring trenches were cut to let the water drain out to the Malwathu Oya which passed close by. Within a couple of days the situation was brought under control and thereafter, none of the living areas went under water despite the heavy rainy season that year. Disease in many forms spring in close communities of this nature – however, due to the diligence and extreme cautions exercised by the healthcare officials, together with NGOs, there wasn’t a single out-break of any disease in the entire period of habitation at Manik Farm. This is a classic case of making a mountain out of a mole-hill and a point which has been blown out of proportion.
Re-settlement – The first round of re-settlement started in late November 2009, within 7 months of arrival at IDP villages. Travelling to Mallavi (30 km off Mankulam Junction) on 30th November searching for a location for the 1st psychosocial centre in re-settled areas, we came across the initial batches of settlers finding roots once again in their villages. Yes, they had to start life all over again since the war had destroyed their homes and livelihood – but they were armed with basic necessities of raw material to build a shelter, food & rations sufficient for months and cash donations. Today Mallavi is a completely changed – from the ghost town I saw then, to the vibrant and busy little township today, complete with a “Nenasala” (IT telecentre).
Considering the landmines planted by LTTE in every little nook and corner, clearing of vast tracts of land & jungle to enable re-settlement of people in such a short time is once again due to the excellent efforts of Sri Lanka Army along with few other agencies. The fact that no one has died since then of landmine explosion is once again incredible, considering the extent of booby-traps set up by a retreating LTTE.
Therefore, the claim that people were held in Centres for years is completely devoid of basis since almost all of the 260,000 people in the IDP welfare villages were re-settled in their original homelands from mid – end 2010, within one and half years, barring a couple of thousand people who were from the far corners of Mullaitivu, the scene of the final battle and the worst areas for clearing of landmines and making it habitable. Having visited Manik Farm area early this year, I was stunned to see that the locations of Zones 3-7 had completely vanished, now overgrown with shrubs and with no trace to show that thousands of people lived there once. Only Zone 1 and 0 which had semi-permanent housing still stands and they are as good as a village in any corner of Sri Lanka, with people living freely. Though they may understandably yearn to return to their original homes and for a sense of permanency, these houses are by no means ‘tents’ nor in the conditions of ‘squalid’ as people are quick to claim.
The biggest boon the Tamil civilian population had in the safety of the IDP welfare villages, was the positive effect of the ending of a 30 year war – they were finally free of the terror and fear. They were finally free to live without fear of dying, fear of their children being forcibly recruited by the LTTE and free to hope for a better future for themselves and their children.
Government needs to be given bouquets and not bricks for having managed a disaster of gigantic proportions and let’s not berate but remember with pride that little Sri Lanka has once again set an example to the world of a speedy response and solution to a humanitarian crisis.
With limited resources what Sri Lanka has accomplished in three and a half years is amazing compared to IDP and refugee resettlements worldwide. What Sri Lanka has achieved in the last three and a half years, other countries have taken a decade. The refugee centres in Pakistan and Iran has hosted Afghan refugees since the 1980s. In Bangladesh, the Myanmar Rohingiyas are in centres since 1991. Since the fighting stopped in the mid 1990s, the refugees and IDPs from the Balkan conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still need a solution. The national governments, regional institutions and the UN as an institution have failed. To resolve its issues, Sri Lanka has acted humanely and strategically. If it was guided by the Western countries, Sri Lanka will be like Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria today. The Author carried out psychosocial activities as a volunteer at IDP Welfare Villages and frequently visited Manik Farm from April 2009 – January 2010 and has firsthand experience of life within the centres