Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1999
Beautiful beaches and civil strife in Sri Lanka
By Lyndall Sachs
"This is my life, packed into these small bags," says 20-year-old Ranjit as he stares bleakly at a couple of battered suitcases lying beside him on the concrete floor. "At least I have little left to lose now, and it means I can run more easily." In fact, Ranjit has been on the run for 15 years, one of hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by years of communal violence in Sri Lanka, a beautiful but ill-starred island situated at the foot of the Indian subcontinent, variously described as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean or more pertinently these days as the Teardrop of Buddha.
Ranjit's family managed to escape civil strife which first engulfed the Jaffna region of Sri Lanka in 1986, but tragedy struck on a boat ride to India when his younger brother fell overboard in the turmoil. After that, "life as a refugee in India was not easy," he says now. "My home, some of my family and my friends were all in Jaffna" so when an Indian peacekeeping force arrived in 1987 and UNHCR began helping refugees repatriate, Ranjit decided to head home.
His return was as ill-fated as his escape. Escalating violence again gripped northern Sri Lanka as he arrived, displacing tens of thousands of additional civilians and since then he has wandered the countryside as a virtual nomad, his daily movements dictated by the ebb and flow of battle lines. He spends his time sitting passively among his few possessions, not knowing where his family is or what the future holds.
To the outside world Sri Lanka had been known for decades as an exotic tourist destination with wonderful beaches and a lush, tropical interior. But the colourful travel catalogues masked an acrimonious political environment between the country's majority Sinhalese government and army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas which eventually slipped into the abyss of civil war.
The Tigers have demanded a separate state in the northern and eastern parts of the island on behalf of the 18 percent minority Tamils. During the 1980s more than 100,000 civilians fled to south India. At the peak of the conflict as many as one million people, Tamils and Sinhalese were displaced. An estimated 50,000-60,000 people were killed and hundreds of civilians simply disappeared. Because it is an internal conflict, much of the carnage has gone unnoticed for years by the international community.
A new role
UNHCR's role changed along with the course of the war. Initially, the organization had helped refugees going home as part of its core mandate but "by 1990," says UNHCR Representative Janet Lim, "it was clear our role could no longer be limited to helping the returnees alone. Many of those whom we helped to return in the first place were now internally displaced persons (IDPs) and it has become almost impossible to define the difference between the two groups." The central government asked the agency to expand its involvement beyond its routine operations, helping the IDPs first with emergency assistance and then trying, often on repeated occasions, to facilitate their eventual return home.
That often means working on the frontline itself or in areas controlled by each side and dealing with populations in need of very different types of help. The Vanni region of Sri Lanka is a typical example of this bizarre humanitarian world. It is a mere six-hour drive from the bustling capital of Colombo and the island's booming southern beach resorts, but in stark contrast to that scene, Vanni is a ghetto of traumatized civilians.
Some regions of Vanni are so-called 'cleared' areas under government control. Other areas are dominated by the Tiger insurgents. Civilians on either side of the confrontation line have been on the run for years, moving each time the battle lines change. Their needs vary widely, according to UNHCR field officer Alessandra Morelli and within a five kilometre radius they range from people needing emergency assistance to merely survive to somewhat luckier groups who are again trying to build a home and restart their lives.
But life is cruel for all the people in Vanni. Eighteen-year-old Vadena spent the last month of her pregnancy and first two months of her son's life living in a dried up river bed under a lean-to of branches. To protect the baby from scorpions, snakes and ants, he was suspended from a branch in a hammock made from a scrap of Vadena's remaining sari.
Forty-year-old Pushpukanti, a mother of two, has fled 14 times, the last time losing everything, including her only son. Like Pushpukanti, many thousands of people have spent years on the road, trying constantly to stay one step ahead of the fighting.
Even when they obtain permanent shelter, life is not much better. Twelve thousand people in the region live in cramped 'welfare' centres where they sleep on reed mats, are allowed two baths a week but where their movements in and out of the centres are controlled by a rigid pass system.
Crossing the battle lines into areas dominated by the Tigers is particularly time consuming and difficult for aid agencies. Army troops and teenage Tamil Tiger fighters man checkpoints throughout a devastated landscape. Stumps of burnt out coconut plantations, the merest trace of paddy fields, the foundations of destroyed houses and herds of cattle gone wild are all that remains in a once populous region.
Convoys run three times a week, but in the second half of 1999 less than one third were allowed through. Trucks undergo rigorous checks and items such as kerosene and plastic sheeting are periodically embargoed because of their alleged military uses
Shelling and gunfire puncture the evening calm. "Living in Vanni is like living on a knife edge," says UNHCR field officer Dag Sigurdson. "The population is ready to flee at the slightest sign of danger."
The government tries to provide basic food items and some cash grants, but with a constantly moving population and an ongoing war, supplies are generally erratic or late. Agencies such as UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Oxfam try to fill the gap.
In such difficult and fluid circumstances, government-agency and inter-agency relations can often be sensitive, but in Sri Lanka there is more than enough work for everyone. "The Red Cross and UNHCR complement each other here with our respective areas of expertise," says ICRC Delegate Cherine Pollini.
"What distinguishes UNHCR from the other agencies is our protection role," says Janet Lim, with the two agencies complementing each other to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of civilians buffeted by an unending conflict get access to minimum safety procedures.
In practical terms that may mean UNHCR field officers helping people to obtain identity documents lost in flight without which children cannot be registered for school, working with local military commanders to obtain passes for free movement or intervening where necessary to help detained individuals. One unique feature of UNHCR's field work is its role in monitoring the treatment of people who have been able to return home.
The organization also helps to improve water and sanitation supplies, rehabilitates schools and provides loans to kick-start small enterprises like poultry farming which may help local populations become self-sufficient.
For now the political process in Sri Lanka is stalled. The war continues. Ranjit and others like him remain at the very margin of civilization. "The longer you are here, the more incomprehensible it becomes," says Janet Lim. "Our challenge is to find a way through these uncharted waters."
Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)