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Als het aan de president van Sri Lanka ligt komt er geen VN-onderzoek naar mensenrechtenschendingen tijdens de burgeroorlog die 26 jaar duurde. Dat heeft de president van het land, Mahinda Rajapaksa, vorige week laten weten. Het land voegt zich daarmee bij Noord-Korea en Syrië als het gaat om weigeren van VN-onderzoek binnen de landsgrenzen. De overwinningsvrede die de Sri Lankaanse regering in 2009 behaalde staat nog als een huis, maar voor hoe lang?
Een gesprek daarover met Bart Klem. Hij promoveerde op Sri Lanka en doet er al jaren onderzoek. Hij kwam er zo’n 30-40 keer.
Balenderan Jayakumari campaigned to find her son, who went missing during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Now she herself has been arrested, along with her 13-year-old daughter.
Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa tells Jonathan Miller that he is ready to investigate allegations of war crimes – declaring: “We have nothing to hide. It’s a free country”.
David Cameron threatens to push for an independent international inquiry into allegations of war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war if the island nation does not conduct its own probe by 2014.
De Hoge Commissaris voor de Mensenrechten van de Verenigde Naties heeft zaterdag fel uitgehaald naar de regering van Sri Lanka. Volgens Navi Pillay begint de regering zich steeds meer autoritair op te stellen, ondanks het feit dat de burgeroorlog in het land vier jaar geleden werd beëindigd.
Pillay was de afgelopen week op bezoek in Sri Lanka en sprak met ambtenaren, politici, mensenrechtenactivisten en slachtoffers van de burgeroorlog. Haar bezoek volgde op een oproep aan Sri Lanka van de Mensenrechtenraad van de VN in maart om oorlogsmisdaden begaan tijdens de burgeroorlog te onderzoeken, door zowel regeringstroepen als de rebellenstrijders van de Tamil Tijgers. In een VN-rapport staat dat de Sri Lankaanse strijdkrachten in de laatste maanden van de oorlog mogelijk veertigduizend Tamils hebben gedood.
Pillay brengt volgende maand een rapport uit over haar bezoek aan het land, maar liet nu al in een verklaring weten ‘zeer bezorgd te zijn dat Sri Lanka, ondanks de kans die het land is geboden door het einde van de oorlog om een nieuwe en bloeiende staat in te richten, steeds meer autoritaire trekjes begint te vertonen’.
”De oorlog mag dan voorbij zijn, maar in de tussentijd is de democratie ondermijnd en de rechtstaat uitgehold”, aldus Pillay. “De omstreden afzetting van de hoogste rechter van het land eerder dit jaar en de klaarblijkelijke politisering van gerechtelijke benoemingen hebben het vertrouwen in de onafhankelijkheid van de rechtspraak geschaad.”
Pillay maakt zich ook ernstig zorgen over de rol van het leger in het noorden van het land, waar de burgeroorlog tot vier jaar geleden werd uitgevochten. Ze roept de regering op haast te maken met de demilitarisatie in het gebied. “Ik was bezorgd toen ik hoorde over de mate waarin het leger zich lijkt te vestigen en betrokken raakt bij burgeractiviteiten zoals onderwijs, landbouw en zelfs toerisme.”
Ook zouden de politie en het leger dorpen bezoeken en inwoners ondervragen en mensenrechtenactivisten intimideren, hoorde Pillay van mensen die ze sprak. “Dit soort surveillance en intimidatie lijkt erger te worden in Sri Lanka, een land waar kritische stemmen vaak worden aangevallen of zelfs het zwijgen wordt opgelegd. “Dit is altijd absoluut onacceptabel, maar het is helemaal uitzonderlijk dat dit gebeurt terwijl een Hoge Commissaris voor de Mensenrechten van de VN op bezoek is.”
Pillay ging ook nog in op de kritiek van Sri Lankaanse ministers en media, die deze week hun twijfels plaatsten bij Pillay’s onafhankelijkheid omdat ze een Tamil van Indiase origine is. “Ze hebben beweerd dat ik bij hen op de loonlijst sta, de ‘Tamil Tijgerin binnen de VN’. Dat is niet alleen compleet onjuist, maar ook diep kwetsend.” Pillay benadrukte wel dat president Mahinda Rajapaksa zijn excuses heeft aangeboden voor de uitlatingen van zijn ministers.
17 DECEMBER 2012 BY FRANCES HARRISON
World Bank population data from Sri Lanka indicates up to a hundred thousand Tamils are unaccounted for after the final war against the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, raising questions about whether they could be dead.
A UN report cited a death toll of forty thousand for the climax of the war in 2009 but a UN internal inquiry last month acknowledged for the first time that up to seventy thousand civilian deaths were possible.
The leaked World Bank spreadsheets broken down by village for the north of the island estimate numbers of returnees to the former conflict area in mid 2010. The Bank also cites Statistical Handbook Numbers for population in 2007 – before the fighting intensified. The two sets of data reveal 101,748 people missing from Mullaitivu District – the area that bore the brunt of the final fighting. This is the equivalent of 28,899 households. This number has been confirmed to me by the World Bank, though they add “other interpretations about the population data that are not included in the document can not be attributed to the World Bank”.
A similar conclusion about the missing population can be drawn when comparing the 2010 World Bank data with census numbers from 2006. The latter were the result of a joint government and rebel head count in the area.
Sceptics might argue the 2006 figures were probably exaggerated by the Tigers and local officials close to them in order to secure more aid. However exactly the same argument could be made for inflating numbers in 2010, which were similarly used for allocating aid.
It’s also not clear if the 2010 World Bank resettlement estimates include the 11,000 Tamil combatants held in detention at that point – or many thousands of Tamils who bribed their way out of the internment camp and escaped to southern India. It’s also possible some of the missing Tamils settled elsewhere in the island but unlikely very large numbers because they do not appear elsewhere in the northern provinces judging by the Bank’s own data. The onus is now on the Sri Lankan government to explain why huge numbers of people appear to be missing from their own population data.
“I lost count of how many bodies I buried in 2009,” says Murugan, a Tamil fisherman from Sri Lanka now in France, with a scar under his right eye from fighting for the naval wing of the Tamil Tigers. “I just keep seeing the bodies of babies just four or five months old, their limbs and heads and body parts spread all over the place,” he says, tormented by nightmares.
By the climax of Sri Lanka’s conflict in 2009, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were penned into a tiny spit of sandy land along the eastern coast, living in squalid makeshift encampments, starving, exhausted and under fire from the Sri Lankan military. Rebel fighters like Murugan couldn’t go out to sea to fight in their gunboats because they were hemmed in, so these burly men were ordered to dispose of the bodies as quickly as possible before they started to rot in the tropical heat. They had experience – after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami Sea Tigers pulled out the rotting limbs from the marshes.
By late January 2009 the corpses started mounting up as the army shelled a safe zone it had demarcated for civilians and hundreds of thousands of people fled under fire towards the coast. “I saw a river full of dead bodies. I can’t describe it. It was as if a tsunami had come again but this time inland,” says Murugan.
In March in a small coastal village called Puttumattalan where a hundred thousand people had taken shelter, Murugan says he was ordered to bury 700 people who died trying to cross over the lagoon to the army side at night. “I think the army must have thought they were Tigers advancing on them and they were all killed near the edge of the water,” he says.
It took five or six days to dispose of all the corpses. Murugan had to erect a fence to block the view of the Sri Lankan snipers on the other side of the water so he could bring in an earthmover to scoop up the dead without being shot at.
“We just dropped the bodies in ditches because there were so many. It was the worst thing in the world. They were all sorts – men, women and kids. More women than men, but children of all ages. Sometimes even now I think of committing suicide. It was terrible. It was like a crematorium, bodies and more bodies and blood everywhere. Till I die I will never forget what I saw there”.
Murugan’s account is consistent with testimony from many other survivors, who describe a nightmarish place. Many have stories of climbing out of their primitive bunkers after a night of relentless shelling only to find the dismembered body parts of their neighbours strewn about.
Today the scale of the tragedy in 2009 in that tiny corner of Sri Lanka is not known. The Sri Lankan government excluded international aid workers and independent journalists from the war zone, making reliable information hard to come by. We now know a UN data collection team received unconfirmed reports of fifty thousand deaths and injuries during the war but by the final weeks it was impossible to count bodies. Wikileaks cables reveal the UN came to a very rough estimate of between 7,000-17,000 people missing presumed dead in the final week of fighting in May 2009.
By then the makeshift hospital had ceased functioning, leaving the injured to die. Already the survival rate had dropped drastically; people were exhausted, their reserves depleted. Medicine and food were desperately short. On May 10th a Catholic priest wrote to the Pope saying there had been 3318 dead the night before and 4000 injured. On the final day of the war another Catholic priest told me he’d seen thousands of bodies lying about as he left the war zone. I questioned him about whether he meant hundreds and he repeated thousands.
Nearly four years on there is no agreed death toll, even to the nearest ten thousand lives. That’s why an international investigation is required to establish the truth about what may be one of the least reported but worst atrocities of recent decades – both in terms of the speed and the scale of the killing.
Fr Reid Shelton Fernando, Colombo
October 17, 2012
The world’s largest camp for internally displaced persons was closed permanently on September 24.
Menik Camp was the last one still open after the end of the civil war. Having heard the experiences of other resettled people, tales of broken promises, of not being allowed back to their original villages, of harassment and ill treatment, some of the last occupants of Menik Camp did not want to leave. But their views were unheeded.
On the day the displaced persons – comprising about 381 families – were moved out, the army bulldozed the camp to the ground.
Where were these people taken? Were they taken to their original villages? It isn’t clear. Moreover, no one seems keen on asking these questions and any news that does come out is monitored or suppressed. So much for media freedom.
The officer in charge of the resettlement did categorically state that the refugees would not be taken to their original villages, citing reasons of “national security.” So why were they moved at all? Was it simply to remove the term “Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs]” from Sri Lanka’s political landscape? Was it because of the UN Human Rights Council’s scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s rights record? Was it so that Sri Lanka can say to the UN and the world that there are no more IDPs here?
The official explanation for keeping these citizens for so long in sub-human and unhygienic conditions is that the land had to be de-mined. But this is questionable, as security forces and people from the South moved freely around these areas. Of course, another reason for maintaining the camps would be to prevent any future uprising.
But now the camps are closed, the question is how are the returning Tamils going to live? They have not been deployed for development work. In rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure in the North and East, Tamils have been excluded from the workforce.
In Mulativu district, the children of resettled families have no local schools and have to walk many kilometers if they want an education. There is no electricity, no medical facilities and people are not allowed to hold meetings without the approval of the armed forces. Recently in a parish church, there was a function to welcome a new priest, but the parish priest had not told the relevant authorities. He got into a lot of trouble as a consequence.
Sister Nicola, who regularly visited the people at Menik Camp, confirmed the appalling conditions there. In a report she sent to concerned people and activists, she made the point that their needs and wants are simple: they want to go back to their original villages, cultivate their property, rear cattle and make their own living.
“Today the Tamil people are forced to become paupers and scavengers, digging through rotten garbage,” she said. “Even buses refuse to take them. This was the scene in all the places I visited and all I could do was weep. I just could not stop my tears when I saw children and women carrying loads on their backs. These children should be in school, yet the government says they have freed the people and resettled them. Assistance was given only by the UNHCR and some other NGOs. Their future is bleak and dark. Can they hope for a bright future? Only God knows.”
Let’s hope that help will be announced in the 2013 national budget. If not, it will be up to Church organizations, NGOs and social activists. I do feel that this is a God-given task, to show solidarity with these suffering, innocent people.
Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a human rights activist and archdiocese coordinator of the country’s Christian Workers Movement.