Tsunami Disaster & Tamil Eelam
Divided Nation - Sri Lanka rebels take up aid
S. Pocha, Boston Globe
January 5, 2005
KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka -- Members of
the Tamil Tigers, separatist rebels who control large swaths of Sri
Lanka's north and east, are appealing to international organizations
to bypass the central government and send aid directly to the
tsunami-devastated regions within their territories, saying they
have received little help in the 10 days since the disaster.
The Tigers appear to have taken the initiative in organizing their
own relief program, creating refugee camps, and providing
comparatively efficient assistance efforts.
Tigers officials say the Asian tsunami killed more than 40,000
people and rendered some 700,000 homeless across territories they
govern from this sleepy northern town, which the rebel group calls
its capital. If accurate, those figures would mean that the toll in
Tamil areas of Sri Lanka accounts for about two-thirds of the
country's total deaths.
Yet nine days after the tsunami hit, ''international aid here is
limited and no new international [organizations] have set up
operations" in Tamil areas, said N. Karkarthigesu, senior Tiger
relief coordinator at the Pallai refugee camp 15 miles west of
Around him, families who fled their sunken homes and shattered
villages sat crowded into unfinished concrete rooms with plastic
sheeting for ceilings. Long lines of people waited outside tents
that dispensed food, medicine, and clothing, and volunteers worked
intensely on various projects across the camp. In one corner men
tried to erect a shed, while in another spot women stirred giant
metal pots and poured their contents into plastic bags that will be
distributed among the refugees.
There is an air of industriousness, and ''without it we'd be dead,"
said Karkarthigesu. ''Most things you see here we've done ourselves.
The government [in Colombo] talks a lot, but we haven't seen a thing
Some international aid workers have said they were surprised by the
speed and efficiency with which the Tigers organized relief efforts
after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26. While some Sri Lankan authorities
appeared to be overcome by a shock-induced inertia for days, the
Tigers organized search and rescue operations in the first hours of
the disaster, according to refugees.
The Tigers also set up a multi-agency task force of Tiger officials,
representatives of the international organizations present in the
area, local nonprofit groups, and even some Sri Lankan government
officials. This facilitated the quick disposal of bodies, clearing
affected areas and setting up more than 35 refugee camps.
''We are safe here," said Maranarayana, 28, a man who came to Pallai
two days after his house was swept away. ''We worry for the future,
but for now we are OK."
While agencies such as UNICEF and the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees have been active here for years and have been ferrying
substantial amounts of aid to Tamil areas, ''the Sri Lankan
government has created all sorts of roadblocks and impediments to
aid reaching us," said S. Puleedevan, a senior Tiger leader in
Colombo, part of a team trying to negotiate a permanent settlement
between the warring sides, which reached a fragile cease-fire more
than two years ago.
''Lots of aid that should be coming to us is sitting in their
warehouses," Puleedevan said. ''Partly it's the usual corruption and
mismanagement. Partly it's ethnic discrimination [because] they are
diverting most of the aid to Sinhalese."
Such mutual suspicion and distrust is what created this tiny
island's ethnic divide in the first place. Sri Lanka's Sinhalese,
who are Buddhists and count the island as their original home, and
Hindus, whose ancestors came from southern India, have shared a long
history as neighbors. But relations between the two deteriorated
after independence from Britain in 1947. More than 1 million Tamils
who had been taken to Sri Lanka to work on tea estates by the
British in the 1800s were stripped of their nationality and forced
to return to India. Those who remained faced increasing
discrimination and violence. Civil war erupted in 1983.
Ferocious fighting by the Tamil Tigers, who came to be known for
their suicide bomb squads such as the one that assassinated Prime
Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India in 1989, gave them control of most
Tamil areas. Both sides declared a cease-fire in 2002 under
international pressure. But negotiations had stalled, and renewed
fighting was widely expected when the water struck.
Naathan, 35, a fisherman from Nagarkovil along the Tamil-controlled
northern coast, said he was sure the war had started again when he
heard a roaring sound rock his village on Dec 26. ''I took my family
and ran, which was good because it saved us from the wave," he said.
''Our house is completely destroyed, but I couldn't live with
Yet a war of words is evident. The Sri Lankan government says the
Tigers are mismanaging their relief and trying to pin the blame
elsewhere. The Tigers answer that the Sri Lankan government is using
the crisis to squeeze and discredit them, even at the cost of
withholding aid to hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees.
Until the tsunami, there were numerous obstacles to sending aid
directly to the Tigers, given that the organization has been
declared a terrorist group by both the United States and India, the
two largest donors of aid to Sri Lanka. But the US Agency for
International Development, the donor arm of the US government, has
indicated that it would focus on getting relief to affected people
regardless of where they live.
''Events like the one here change history," said Hans Brattskar, the
ambassador to Sri Lanka from Norway, whose government has mediated
the peace talks. ''The situation today can either bring both parties
closer or move them further apart."