Tens of thousands at risk in Sri Lanka as fighting escalates

The Sri Lankan military and the opposing Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are putting tens of thousands of displaced civilians at risk as fighting continues in the Wanni area of northern Sri Lanka.

A major concern, as the situation worsens, is that there is little reliable information available from the ground, as journalists are restricted from reporting in the area. Both sides consistently contradict each other. This is why international independent monitors are urgently needed on the ground to assess the situation.

There is no safe haven for the thousands of families trying to escape the aerial bombardment and shelling of Sri Lankan forces as they push towards the town of Kilinochchi. Since May, government aerial bombardment and artillery shelling has forced more than 70,000 people to flee their homes, primarily in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitvu districts.

In the LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni, the Tigers have hindered thousands of families from moving to safer places by imposing a strict pass system. Some individuals have been forced to stay behind as guarantors, to ensure the return of other family members.

“These people are running out of places to go and basic necessities,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher. “The Tigers are keeping them in harm’s way and the government is not doing enough to ensure they receive essential assistance.”

Amnesty International has received reports that the government is keeping those who have been able to leave LTTE-controlled areas in temporary shelters that often operate as de facto detention centres.

Witnesses from Kalimoddai camp in Mannar district told the organization that more than 200 families who are held there cannot exit the camp for any reason (except to go to school) without obtaining a pass from the government’s security forces.

Despite calls for the displaced to be allowed to move via humanitarian corridors to safer areas where they can receive essential aid and assistance, they are in fact being used as a buffer between the two opposing forces.

Sri Lankan media reported Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, Commander of the Army, ordering his troops in the Wanni area to seal any routes out of the area in order to stop LTTE infiltration. Sealing the border will also prevent civilians from fleeing the conflict zones.

“Both sides to this long conflict have again shown that they will jeopardize the lives of thousands of ordinary people in the pursuit of military objectives,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty’s Sri Lanka researcher. “In the absence of independent international monitors, Sri Lankan civilians lack protection and remain at the mercy of two forces with long records of abuse.”

The government has given reassurances at the weekend that they will open three safe corridors and that, for the moment, the government is facilitating humanitarian assistance through Omanthai checkpoint ­- the crossing point between government-controlled territory and the area held by the LTTE. This aid is desperately needed but humanitarian agencies operating in the area have voiced serious concerns that if the conflict continues displaced civilians will face greater hardship.

Amnesty International has established that around a third of the displaced families were forced to live in the open air with no shelter. Many could not receive food, tarpaulin for temporary shelters and fuel because of a lack of access to LTTE-controlled areas and restrictions on goods going through Omanthai.  The lack of adequate privacy for women and girls has led to an increase in reports of sexual and gender-based violence.

The displacement of civilians increased dramatically in July, with 14,000 new families made homeless. As of 7 August, government figures indicate that the overall number of displaced people is between 150,000 and 160,000.