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INDICTMENT AGAINST SRI LANKA
The Charge is Ethnic Cleansing
Sri Lanka's Undeclared War on Eelam Tamils
...in the Shadow of the Ceasefire: 2002 - 2007
Colombo (AsiaNews) - A "cage", a "narrow prison" where one can wait for hours just for the army's permission to cross the street, where one can die of hunger if the authorities decide to block supply channles for "reasons of security", and where a culture of violence and oppression is growing more fierce. This is Jaffna, a small peninsula to the north of Sri Lanka, a place where civil war has been underway for 24 years, and about which "the world knows nothing, since news does not spread from here even to the rest of the country". Recounting the dramatic situation of Jaffna is the provincial superior of the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate (OMI) in Sri Lanka, Fr S.M. Selvaratnam. AsiaNews interviewed him while he was visiting Colombo.
Q. Father, can you review for us the living conditions of the population of Jaffna?
Next year will be the 25th year that this small piece of land has lived with an absurd war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the government forces. It is too much; the people cannot endure it anymore: too many parents have lost their children, too many children are orphans, too many women widows, too many tears have been shed.
Apart from the psychological factors, there are concrete difficulties with carrying on daily life and meeting its necessities. Food and medicine can arrive only by boat or by helicopter, because the land routes have been blocked for over a year. Everything is under the control of the military, so that when they decide to interrupt supplies, perhaps for reasons of "security", the people die of hunger.
But even when food is available the prices are so high, because of the costs of transportation, that many cannot afford to buy it. The only means of subsistence would be farming and fishing, but both of these have been halted: kerosene is impossible to find, and fisherman cannot go out to sea, because the navy maintains that this is too dangerous. One can grow a little rice, but only for domestic consumption.
It is also difficult to travel from Jaffna toward the south: the passenger ships do not guarantee regular service, while flights are reserved far in advance and cost too much (125 euro for Colombo).
The people live in terror, because - and I am not exaggerating - anyone can come into your home and kill you, or shoot you while you are out on the street. Every 10 metres there is a soldier with a pistol aimed at you. Just to cross the street you may have to wait three or four hours for permission from the military.
Q. Does the average citizen have the opportunity to obtain justice?
There is no such possibility, because there is no reliable authority that can be approached. If one of my relatives is killed and I go to claim the body, I am required to state that the person was a member of the Tigers, which means that his killing was justified. The authorities maintain, a priori, that the Tamils of Jaffna are all members of the Tigers.
But the government and the military do not know that many of us are opposed to the rebels and their actions. Moreover, there are so many groups involved in fighting in the area, that you never know who might be responsible for a homicide: the navy, the police, the army, the Tigers, or the so-called paramilitary groups. It could be said that here is no order, no law here. We know that recently a grand tribunal has been opened, but we ask ourselves why . . . even the lawyers are afraid, and refuse to work.
Q. Doesn't anyone appeal to the security forces in the area?
It is very sad to admit this, but there is a real problem of communication. The Tamils of Jaffna are unable to speak with the Sri Lankan soldiers, who - for the most part uneducated young men from the villages - do not speak English or Tamil. Most of the military personnel have a very harsh attitude, but among them are also very humane, good persons who are likewise incapable of explaining the reason why we are at war.
This fact becomes even more dramatic if one considers that our daily life depends on the army: it can be said that one cannot move in Jaffna without a long string of permissions from the military authorities. And now they have introduced the so-called "military identity card", which practically makes useless the national identity card that we all possess. The army issues this card only after the citizen has provided a photo of his family, a photo of himself, and all of the information requested, down to the smallest details. But if, in order to comply with regulations, a citizen must possess a military identification card, then one is no longer under a civil government, but under a military government.
Q. What can the Church do to alleviate the sufferings of these people? Are there any elements within civil society in Jaffna, any spokesman for the needs of Tamils?
Very few people know anything about what is happening in Jaffna. There is no freedom of expression, and even the priests, who were once the only ones who dared to speak out against oppression, have been silenced. The disappearance of Fr Jim Brown more than a year ago intimidated and frightened them. So the voice of the inhabitants of Jaffna has been silenced, both within the peninsula and in the rest of the country and in the world.
Q.What hope is there for a better future?
The people have no more hope. A culture of war has become rooted in Jaffna, and an entire generation has been born and raised amid the bombs. Education has been paralysed; young people are unable to go to school. The culture is destroyed. Economic difficulties destroy entire families. There are fathers who go to buy medicine for their sick children or wife, discover that it is too expensive, and don't even return home, because in desperation they would rather kill themselves. No one trusts any of the politicians anymore: for Jaffna, it makes no difference who runs the government, they all behave in the same way. There is widespread pessimism; we have seen too many ambassadors and presidents come here from outside without changing anything.