Sri Lanka's war zone - an insider's testimony

Peter Foster
March 02, 2009

Read Article from Source

THE humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka deepens daily, with up to 200,000 (the Sri Lankan government says 100,000) civilians trapped in the conflict zone as Sri Lanka's armed forces attempt a final rout of the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE) in defiance of requests from India and others for a ceasefire.

I have referred in the past to the difficulties for aid workers in Sri Lanka, so I wanted to share a communication that I received from a veteran international aid worker who was delivering food-aid to displaced people in the Vanni towards the end of last year.

I'm giving you the account in full below, but what is interesting to me is how it shows the extent to which relations between the Sri Lankan government and the United Nations are strained on the ground.

To my source it appeared that Sri Lanka army and politicans didn't see the UN as 'their UN too', but rather a "hostile and subservient" force in its own country.

Attempts to deliver aid (such as shelter materials) are often obstructed for fear of anything landing up in the hands of the LTTE. From this perspective, 'humanitarian aid' becomes indistinguishable (to some of those prosecuting this war) from 'aiding' the enemy.

This explains a lot of Sri Lanka's foot-dragging when it comes to meeting its humanitarian obligations. It is true that the LTTE (shooting at fleeing civilians) is worse, but then it is fair to expect higher standards from a democratically elected government.

The source also reports that UN vehicles and staff were subjected to searches in disregard of the Vienna Convention that grants immunity from such intrusions. "Not even in Kosovo in 1998 (before NATO came in) were the Serbs so disrespectful of international UN staff as is the Sri Lankan Army," the aid worker adds.

This attitude towards the UN and its humanitarian mission has very serious implications - not just for the suffering displaced people on the ground who need an effective aid-operation - but because it gives the world another reason not to take at face value the 'good intentions' of the Sri Lankan government.

Pro-Tamil groups are pressing hard to have the Sri Lankan war-effort censured at the UN (which won't happen because China and Russia will veto such efforts), accusing the Sri Lankan government of conducting what amounts to a 'genocide' against the Tamil minority.

Without wanting to get into the legal definition of 'genocide', such claims - true or false, exaggerated or otherwise - are given a certain amount of force by the apparent reluctance of the Sri Lankan government to be more transparent and co-operative with international agencies as it conduct its war.

The ultimate question, as I have written in the past, is what post-War settlement the right-wing Sinhalese government of Mahinda Rajapakse intends to impose on Sri Lanka's Tamils.

The fear - fuelled by the repeated attacks on the Sri Lankan media (most recently the Tamil newspaper editor N Vithyatharan), the refusal to tolerate dissent in Sri Lanka and the often chauvinist rhetoric of key figures in the Sri Lankan government, including the army chief Sarath Fonseka - is that the final settlement will be so discriminatory and demanding of subservience from the Tamil minority that it will amount to a piece of ethnic suppression/cleansing in all but name.

Only time will truly tell if those fears are justified. I make no predictions, however I do believe that the legitimacy of such fears - indignantly dismissed as Tamil propaganda by the Sri Lankan government - is deepened by the current Sri Lanka's government's apparently hostile attitude towards the UN, both on the ground and in international diplomatic circles.

What follows is a simple account of one aid workers experience on the ground in Sri Lanka. At one level it is perfectly mundane, but at the same time provides a rare insight into how difficult and highly politicised aid has become on the ground in Sri Lanka.

The correspondent writes as follows:

"On one particular food convoy which consisted of 60 x 35 ton trucks loaded to capacity the loading of it was monitored by soldiers and trucks they were sealed and secured in a compound the night before departure. Fuel tanks were sealed as were spare wheels etc. This may be reasonable in order to deny giving help to the enemy but it also included searching personal effects of UN international staff - short of body searches everything was searched.

On 2 occasions government propaganda leaflets were secreted into vehicles by a soldier - these were aimed at the Tamils who would be unloading vehicles at the destination.

When the convoy left it was escorted by the army to the SLA [Sri Lankan Army] front line (to prevent anything being added to the loads) and then accompanied by ICRC [Red Cross] through 30 kilometers of no-man's land (NML) to the LTTE checkpoint. Apart from counting trucks there was no problem from the LTTE.

About 10 kilometers into NML 2 shells landed to the rear far enough away to cause no damage but the light vehicles (Toyota Land Cruisers) shuddered with the vibration. This despite being assured by both sides that it would be safe.

On arrival at Puthukkudyiruppu (PTK) the convoy split and 30 trucks went to Dharmapuram - it was still daylight and the state of the IDPs [internally displaced people or refugees] in shacks, etc along the roadside and deeper into the countryside was easy to observe. There was no chance to get out and speak to them as the mission was to deliver food and educational material to Dharmapuram, unload and get out. The government had given times to keep to.

One staff member compared the situation of the IDPs to that he'd seen in Somalia when talking to the BBC. The IDPs were living very basically. The BBC added that Somalia had no government since 1991. This angered the government which only wants to see positive reporting and the person who made the remark was banned from carrying out any more humanitarian activity in the Vanni. Such is the control of the press and objective reporting. Clearly the government is scared about the world hearing what is going on.

The following morning from first light (6am) some IDPs were visited in Dharmapuram. IDPs were found living under plastic sheet shelters, used rice bags, cardboard etc. There were no shelter materials which agencies wanted to distribute as the government would not allow these to be taken in case LTTE used them as defence stores.


On the return trip there were further shellings to the front of the convoy which lasted about 2 hours. When it stopped the convoy carried on south out of the battle area. In no man's land the road was partially blocked by debris which was found to be shell debris - a shell impact was found on the track and broken branches across the road. This was the case also 500 meters further on. The shelling was happening despite being given assurances by both parties that it would be safe. Had the convoy not stopped or proceeded with care it could easily have been under the shelling.

The track was cleared and we drove on - arriving at the government front line where there were some troops and an ICRC tent with some of their staff. The front line was at a river and over a dozen SLA soldiers were splashing around almost naked in the river. Only one man was clothed and holding and weapon. Is it much surprise that the army take such heavy casualties? It was odd that that only a corporal was present - no officers. One wondered where the officers were - an officer was not seen for another 25 kilometers!

Later, at Omantai Checkpoint, (a purpose-built government vehicle search area) the convoys have to stop. Each and every one of the UN trucks is systematically searched. Although they were empty by this time, some 4 hours was spent by soldiers measuring interior dimensions and comparing them with external dimensions. Engines, chassis, driving compartments - everything was subject to such detailed searches.

Not only that, but the UN cars occupied by UN staff went through the same routine. International staff are required to empty out their personal effects while every item is examined by soldiers with a pompous attitude which would not have been tolerated by those being searched on Belfast Streets years ago. Food containers were opened, toothpaste tubes, etc. The troops are unsupervised except by Military Police junior NCOs. No officers are present.

A UN staff member who told the BBC that the situation of the displaced community in the battle area was comparable to that he saw in Somalia some years before. As a result of making that comment the government ordered that he report to the commanding general. He refused to do so as it was very likely to be reprimanded and he was not to be humiliated. He was informed that he was persona non grata in the LTTE area and was to keep out of it. Foreign eyes are not supposed to say anything about what is seen in the battlefield.

He returned to Colombo and went into low profile. In the following days a TV studio (which did not tow the government line) was trashed by 20 thugs with weapons, a leading journalist (critical of the government) shot dead in the street, an ambassador called to the Minister for Foreign Affairs for making unbecoming comments at the funeral of the journalist.....there is a risk in saying anything critical of the situation in Sri Lanka.