'Hunting Season Has Opened for the Tigers'

By Annieke Kranenberg / [de Volkskrant 07 01 2005]

(This is a translation of an article titled 'Hunting Season Has Opened for the Tigers' from the Volkskrant, one of the three largest national dailies in the Netherlands . The article deals with the issue of child recruitment and rehabilitation politics on the ground in Batticaloa. .)

BATTICALOA – Now, just as relief efforts in Sri Lanka are getting underway, most of the refugees already appear to be leaving the refugee camps. They are being pressured into leaving by the Tamil Tigers, according to relief workers. 'They want control, control, control.'

A few days ago, the school near Valaichenai on Sri Lanka’s eastern seaboard was still filled to the brim with tsunami victims. Now the classrooms are half empty. Over the past few days, as many as 750 refugees have left, says the camp manager. Not because they were so eager to return to their destroyed houses, but because the Tamil Tigers had ‘requested’ it. Some eight or nine thousand refugees have left this region in the last few days. But that is not all: 'The Tigers also took bags of rice along with them', one old man whispered to another Tamil, an interpreter who is accompanying the group. Why didn’t he tell that to the relief workers in the camp? ‘I couldn’t,’ replied the old man. ‘If the Tigers were to find out, I would be murdered.’

The LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – want the refugees to stay in the areas they control, and not in the camps run by the government against which the Tigers have fought for twenty years with an eye to securing an autonomous state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the government has consisted primarily of Singhalese, which make up about three-fourths of the population. Among the laws it has made is one that makes Singhalese the only official language. The Tamils, who make up nearly 20 percent of the population, have felt and continue to feel discriminated against.

Not long before the tsunami, tensions were high in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, where many Muslims also live. It was looking as though the cease-fire, which went into effect nearly three years ago, would not remain in effect much longer. The cease-fire agreement allows the LTTE to open political offices. Since the agreement went into effect, the Tamil Tigers have only increased their pressure on the population, according to observers. 'The LTTE want only one thing: control, control, control', says one of the observers.

According to him, that is the reason why the Tamils have to go back to their old villages or to one of the refugee camps run by the Tamil Relief Oranisation (TRO). It is an open secret that this organisation is more or less run by the LTTE. The director of the TRO in the district in question, Batticaloa, avoids questions concerning this. 'We are registered as an independent NGO.'

In his office, located in an alley, Sebamalai Sessar – ‘sounds just like Caesar’ – tells that the TRO gets its money primarily from the diaspora (approximately one in ten Tamils lives abroad). 'We have nineteen offices spread around the world.'

The 29-year-old director is in charge of fourteen TRO camps where, he says, more than 21 thousand refugees are being housed. 'We are providing them with food, medicine and safety.' Sessar emphasizes that the TRO will be providing relief for ten thousand people for three to six months, in consultation with the government. They are also 'working together with all relief organisations'.

Several local relief organisations have nevertheless declared that they have been denied access to the TRO camps. Sessar reacts peevishly: 'Why are you asking this? Who made this accusation?' and with regard to the removal of refugees: 'That is for the statistics. We want to have an idea of how many of the victims are Tamils.' The TRO and the LTTE won’t take any criticism, says Father Miller of St. Michaels College in Batticaloa. The clergyman, an American who has been living in Sri Lanka in since 1947, should know. He is one of the few who dares to be openly critical about the Tamil Tigers. He has regularly had to call in security personnel. 'On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government has sometimes referred to me as a white Tiger. They don’t like me either.'

He confirms that the TRO is trying to gain control of the Tamil refugees. In the city of Batticaloa, which was heavily hit by the tsunami, nearly all of the camps are now under the control of the TRO, he says. He had an emergency meeting about this last Wednesday, as the situation has been growing more and more serious.

'At this moment, the LTTE is recruiting child soldiers in the camps. The orphaned children are especially vulnerable. It is open hunting season for the Tigers.'

At some schools, where most of the refugees in this area are being housed, government army soldiers are keeping watch. Miller, who has devoted himself to helping former child soldiers of the LTTE, nevertheless fears that little can be done to prevent young boys and girls from being recruited. 'The LTTE is abusing this disaster in order to increase its influence in the east.'

In the north, which the Tigers have largely ‘cleansed’ not only of other ethnic groups but also of moderate Tamils, the LTTE enjoys relative autonomy. That holds for scattered areas in the east as well. There are some 100 thousand Tamils and 125 thousand Muslims living in the district of Batticaloa, for example.

The road through the interior to the coastal city of Batticaloa runs past dozens of Sri Lankan army checkpoints as well as through areas claimed by the LTTE. The motor brigade of the Tamil Tigers drives around here on black and red Yamaha motorcycles. There is a memorial to the suicide bombers at an intersection. The Tamil Tigers are responsible for a variety of infamous suicide attacks, such as the one against the Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Most Tamils don’t want to have anything to do with the Tigers, according to a lawyer. 'They do want freedom, but without violence. But they don’t dare to resist. Especially now, after the disaster, in these horrendous circumstances.'

The relief organisations also want to avoid getting tangled up in the complex conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. If they are critical of the Tigers, they will no longer be able to carry out their work. 'You have to admit that the TRO have done a lot of work in the past days', one of them says. 'They were the first ones to start clearing away the bodies and to distribute food.'

When asked about the departure of the refugees, the manager of the camp in the school near Valaichenai says that they left voluntarily. 'They are only afraid of the sea.' A relief worker who is present says, 'It is simply impossible to find out what they think about things. Perhaps some really do want to return home already. But one thing is certain: the facilities in the camps here are much better than those in the Tiger areas.'



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