In just six months, one of the world's
largest camps for war refugees has been carved out of the jungles
of northern Sri Lanka, complete with banks, post offices, schools
and a supermarket. But no one is allowed out, and hardly anyone is
Aid workers and foreign diplomats increasingly fear that Manik
Farm, a facility they helped build, is actually a military-run
internment camp where 210,000 ethnic Tamil civilians displaced by
the civil war are being held indefinitely. Government memos and
U.N. documents obtained by The Associated Press, as well as
interviews with more than two dozen aid workers, U.N. officials,
diplomats and rights advocates, detail how the international
community poured tens of millions of dollars into these camps,
despite their concerns.
"At best, it is at the edge of all kinds of international
principles," said one Western diplomat based in Colombo, who spoke
on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the
government. "But more likely, it is illegal."
The documents and interviews also reveal what appear to be
worsening conditions at the camp, which houses civilians displaced
in the final, bloody battles of the quarter-century civil war that
ended two months ago.
In June, chicken pox was rampant and cases of typhoid,
tuberculosis, skin and respiratory infections, hepatitis A, scabies
and diarrhea have begun cropping up, according to U.N. reports.
More than 35 percent of children under 5 are suffering from
wasting, or acute malnutrition, according to a July 3 government
presentation leaked to the AP.
Tents meant for five are packed with up to 15 people, water is
scarce and the seasonal rains expected in the coming weeks could
create a health nightmare, several foreign aid workers said.
Relatives are not allowed to visit, although many gather at the
barbed wire fence hoping to get messages to their loved ones.
Opposition lawmakers are barred as well, and independent
journalists are only allowed in on rare, military-guided tours.
Signs of unrest are growing. Several weeks ago, inmates held a
protest demanding they be reunited with family members in other
fenced-off sections of the camp, aid workers said. Military troops
shot in the air to disperse the angry residents.
The Sri Lankan government has branded Manik Farm a "welfare
village," where children can go to school, parents can get
vocational training and those traumatized by the war can get
medical and social care. Sri Lankan officials say most of the
refugees will be able to return to their homes by the end of the
year, and that they will open up the camps after they screen out
former Tamil Tiger rebels who could stir up trouble.
However, aid workers say the military officer in charge told
them almost no war refugees would go home this year, and the
screening process is dragging on, with even civilians who fled the
war in January still confined to the camps.
Mano Ganesan, an ethnic Tamil parliamentarian, said the
government sealed the camps to keep those inside from telling the
world about the final months of the war, when human rights groups
say the military killed thousands of civilians with heavy shelling.
"There is no other logical reason to understand the
government's position," he said.
The civil war in Sri Lanka pitted the government of this island
off the southern coast of India against one of the world's most
sophisticated insurgencies, which was fighting for a separate state
for the Tamil minority. The battle raged across the Tamil Tigers'
shadow state in the north. The U.N. says the conflict killed
between 80,000 and 100,000 people since 1983.
By last August, government forces appeared to finally have the
upper hand. Anticipating a wave of civilians fleeing the fighting,
the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees drew up a three-page memo
Aug. 29 setting out the conditions it would require to help Sri
Lanka set up displacement camps. The camps should be run by a
civilian administration, and the displaced should be guaranteed
"full and unhindered freedom of movement," the memo noted.
In January, the government asked international donors to help
build five camps - with 39,000 semi-permanent homes, 7,800 toilets
and 390 community centers - to hold civilians for up to three
Aid workers feared they were being asked to build military-run prison camps to indefinitely detain hundreds of thousands of
civilians, according to an official who took part in meetings with
the government. They decided to provide temporary tents instead of
shacks and to make only a three-month commitment to the camps.
In four days in the middle of April, more than 100,000 civilians
escaped the war zone. The same month, a U.N. document reported that
armed soldiers and some paramilitary groups were stationed inside
the camps. In a private memo written at that time, Walter Kaelin, a
senior U.N. official, demanded a time frame for the civilians to be
freed from the camps.
By the end of the war in May, nearly 300,000 civilians were
living in schools and displacement camps. The largest was Manik
Farm, so densely populated it would stand as the second-largest
city in the country. Aid groups put up 43,000 shelters and tents,
8,761 latrines, 339 places to bathe, 12 nutrition centers and 132
temporary learning spaces for students, according to the U.N.
Aid groups continued to help well after their initial
three-month commitment expired, despite ongoing concerns. The head
of one group said the major agencies and the U.N. "are incapable
of negotiating or playing hardball with the government."
The conflict exposes a major dilemma aid groups and donors
worldwide face: They feel bound to assist desperate civilians, yet
such work might support government policies they strongly protest.
Most of the aid officials spoke to the AP on condition of
anonymity out of fear the government would further restrict their
access to the camps or expel their organizations from the country.
In recent weeks, the government demanded agencies sign agreements
promising not to make "public comments" about camp conditions
without authorization. It asked the Red Cross, one of the more
critical groups, to "scale down" its operations.
As an AP journalist interviewed one agency head, five
immigration officials raided his office to ensure his foreign staff
had the proper visas. The AP has not been allowed into the camps
since May, and requests to interview Maj. Gen. G. A. Chandrasiri,
the military official who ran the camps until he was named governor
of the Northern Province on Wednesday, have gone unanswered.
"We are doing a great wrong to these people," former Chief
Justice Sarath Silva said after a visit to Manik Farm last month,
just days before his retirement.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for
Policy Alternatives, a local public policy group, said Manik Farm
and the other facilities are "internment camps or detention
camps." His group filed a suit in the Supreme Court last month
accusing the government of illegally detaining hundreds of
thousands of its own citizens.
Ganesan filed a second suit, with four other opposition
lawmakers, demanding access to what he called "more or less prison
That description angered Resettlement Minister Rishard
"That is wrong. People are very happy there," he said.
Badurdeen said the government has allowed more than 3,000 people
over the age of 60 to leave the camps and resettled several
thousand people since May who were displaced in fighting in 2007.
He said the government needs to finish registering and screening
the camp residents, and that authorities have already pulled out
nearly 10,000 former insurgents for rehabilitation.
Badurdeen declined to give a time frame for when the refugees
can be released: "After the registration, we can consider it,
along with security concerns."
Government officials say they cannot return the civilians to
their former homes until the north is demined and certified safe by
the United Nations.
"Every square centimeter has been mined by the LTTE (the
rebels). If something happens, I am responsible," President
Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Indian newspaper The Hindu in a recent
Demining experts say Rajapaksa is grossly exaggerating the
problem, with one estimating that only 2 to 3 percent of the region
might be mined. Experts said it would take about six months to
remove unexploded shells from towns and fields and to mark off the
minefields so residents don't wander into them. But deminers have
been barred from all but a tiny corner of the former war zone, said
three people involved in the demining process.
Ganesan said he feared the government was using the mines as an
excuse to keep civilians out so it could set up armed military
camps across the north.
In the meantime, military officials are pushing to make the
facilities at the camps more permanent - a move many aid workers
had long feared.
When temporary latrines overflowed from use by more than 100
people each - 2 1/2 times their intended capacity - military
commanders demanded concrete latrines. The aid groups offered to
build more wooden latrines instead.
With heavy rains expected in the coming weeks, military
commanders suggested giving residents bags of cement to pour
foundations for their tents. The aid groups protested that cement
floors could become the foundations for permanent structures.
Some infrastructure is going up. The army ran electricity lines
to power lights and loudspeakers. UNICEF laid pipe to bring in
water from a nearby river.
The government says 80 percent of those in the camps will return
home by the end of the year. But Chandrasiri told aid officials
that no more displaced families would go home in the next six
months and only 20 percent within a year, said an official at the
meeting. Meanwhile, the government is clearing more sites and
building more camps.
"At the current rate, they will still be building the camp at
the time they should be taking it down," the official said.
The pressure is growing on the government to compromise.
The U.N. called for $270 million in aid to Sri Lanka this year,
but only $96 million has been promised. The lack of funds forced
aid groups have cut back on fruit and vegetables for the camps,
leaving many with little more than rice and lentils.
The camps cost nearly $400,000 a day to operate. Foreign
governments will be hesitant to pledge more if conditions don't
change, and Sri Lanka would be hard pressed to pay on its own.
"We can't keep these people very long in a refugee camp. We
don't have the resources," said Badurdeen, the resettlement
Neil Buhne, head of the U.N. mission in Sri Lanka, said aid
agencies would review the situation in the camps in mid-August, but
declined to say whether they would pull out if the gates remained
For now, those trapped inside worry about their future, Buhne
"Every time I go to the camps more people ask me, 'When are we
going to be let out?"'
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