The Fallacy of Concentration Camps

26th April 2009 will be etched in my memory, as I watched the thousands of civilians who had escaped from the no-fire zone, trying to make a life of sorts, in IDP camps, in "Menik Farm", Chettikulam, in Vavuniya district where I had the privilege of accompanying some friends who were on a visit to the camps.

The dazed and blank looks in children’s eyes, the physical pain and agony of adults and kids alike, tore through my heart as I watched those gathered at the main tent, serving as a make shift medical camp that day. The condition of the civilians with varying degrees of injury, sickness and malnutrition after many weeks of near hunger in the no-fire zone and the subsequent harrowing escape from it….

The sudden influx of over 150,000 people had obviously not been expected by the government but the way they have responded has to be recognized & commended. The army was acting as peace keepers and not jailers, helping civilians to settle in, assisting the weak and the injured and extending hands of friendship to those very people who had been their so called "enemy" a few weeks ago.

The recent rescue of civilians from the no-fire zone has brought in several thousands in to this camp, which has been quickly set up with tents donated by the UN and other agencies – a sea of white tents stretched as far as my eyes could see with people still trying to settle in, with many more being brought in by buses daily from the east.

Immediate essentials were being provided, with water and cooked food being brought in daily, toilets set up (with more being dug) and medical attention provided speedily, with those whose conditions warranted being sent to hospitals nearby.

There was also a medical camp being conducted by a group of volunteer doctors from Colombo, through the association, "Jayagrahana’ (Success), of the International Buddhist Centre in Wellawatte & led by the indefatigable Dr Anula Wijesundara. Medicines brought from Colombo were immediately dispensed to patients, who were lined up patiently waiting their turn.….. some who were too sick to even sit up, some on crutches, sickly children in the arms of their parents, pregnant mothers, faces aged long before their time, all silently waiting… It was a heart wrenching sight.

It was also encouraging to see the able and the fitter adults helping to unload medical supplies and supporting the army in organizing things around the camp and helping out generally in whatever that needed to be done.

The army and the joint efforts of the government agencies such as Health, Water Board, Electricity Board etc., appear to have done a marvelous job, given the short time. The tents were neatly pitched and despite the teeming crowds, the place was remarkably clean and sanitation facilities being expanded speedily, until more permanent arrangements could be made.

The incredible organizational efforts I witnessed are testimony to the sincerity and commitment of the government and its dedicated officials who were all present on a Sunday, to ensure shortages were being looked into, in areas of shelter, medicine, nutrition and sanitation, being immediate priorities.

Another section known as Menik Farm Zone 1, which had been previously set up for the initial influx of IDPs , was well built with semi-permanent structures made of galvanized sheets & covered "cadjan" (woven coconut palm leaves) to make it cooler - life seems to have settled into a routine with people getting on with their daily chores of washing clothes, cooking for themselves in little kitchens built behind their houses, rows of permanent toilets, with showers fixed where families were gathered to wash, children playing in a playground equipped with slides & swings and people tending little patches of gardens planted with manioc and other vegetables. Here, life seems to be slowly but surely gaining a semblance of normalcy until they are permanently settled in their villages at some future point. This is absolute proof that the government has done its best to ensure the civilians are well looked after and the stories of concentration camps and of abuse and rape by the army seemed so far from the truth. People were moving freely around with no real need to escape the "camps" where they seemed well settled.

The hospitals nearby had been over filled with the un-expected numbers of patients, but the doctors and nurses had been working day and night in coping with the load of work with enthusiasm and commitment and the medical supplies, ample.

It was heartening to hear a Tamil doctor in one of the hospitals saying that the army’s kindness and empathy extended to the civilians had already healed the hearts of the people if not their physical wounds….

To me, this was more than anything, absolute proof of the army’s dedication and compassion to the civilians and in no measure, disproving the propaganda of the Tamil Diaspora abroad, who are protesting in the streets of Paris, London Toronto and Melbourne, safely ensconced in their comfortable lifestyles, many thousands of miles away, proclaiming to know what was going on in their "homeland", which most of the younger generation has no inkling of, having been born and bred abroad.

Today, the people of Sri Lanka in all corners of the country are rallying around their Tamil brethren, extending a hand of friendship, collecting essentials at temples, churches mosques and through many other organizations and donating whatever is possible within their means, at a time when economic downturn is affecting all. Therefore it is time, that the world realizes the 30 year war was not a matter of race but of absolute terror and power and limited to those with personal agendas. Let us break this curse which has been cast upon our country for so many decades, with love and kindness, empathy and justice to heal the wounds of war, so that our children may at least be able to live in peace and harmony in this beautiful island called Sri Lanka

Manori Unambuwe

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