Civilians trapped by Sri Lanka conflict

More than 300,000 civilians are now trapped in the north-eastern part of Sri Lanka as the fighting between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the army intensifies. Hundreds of people have been killed or injured in the Wanni region of the island.

Recent reports suggest both sides are violating the laws of war by targeting civilians and preventing them from escaping to safety. Amnesty International has received information that the LTTE has in at least one instance prevented injured civilians from moving to safer areas or accessing medical care, an act that could constitute a war crime.

The Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out military operations in areas with a civilian population. The aerial and artillery bombardment has reportedly led to civilian deaths, injuries, the destruction of property and mass displacement.

“Targeting civilians and carrying out indiscriminate attacks by any party to the conflict violates international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty International researcher Yolanda Foster.

Sri Lankan government forces have pushed the Tamil Tigers out of all major urban areas they had held for nearly a decade and into a small pocket of land. More than 300,000 civilians who have fled the oncoming government troops are also trapped in this small area. They have been displaced multiple times and are increasingly vulnerable as fighting moves closer.

Hundreds of people have been killed or injured and such medical care as has been available is threatened due to danger to the few health workers and damage to hospitals.

The government had declared “safe zones” to allow civilians to seek shelter, but information made available to Amnesty International indicates that several civilians in the so-called safe zone have been killed or sustained injuries as a result of artillery bombardment.

A doctor working in a hospital in a “safe zone” says that about 1,000 shells fell around the hospital. The hospital, which houses at least 1,000 patients, was damaged and hundreds of people in the area were injured.

The United Nations on Thursday managed to evacuate some of the critically injured who were denied proper medical care due to the fighting between the conflicting parties  A convoy of 24 vehicles, arranged by the Red Cross and The United Nations to transport up to 300 wounded people, including 50 children, was stopped from leaving the area by the LTTE.

The civilian population living in the north of Sri Lanka lacks protection. People displaced by the conflict are experiencing insecurity and an acute shortage of humanitarian aid, especially food, shelter and medical care. There has been no food convoy into the area since 16 January.

A woman living locally told a journalist working in the region that they do not have enough space.

“It is impossible to dig bunkers because there is water everywhere. We have no proper shelter. People are living outside. Shelling is relentless. Maybe, twenty or thirty shells fall here in a day. People are dying.
“We are all crowded here tightly packed. They have erected shacks next to each other. There are problems because there are not enough toilets, we are short of water and very little food “
A government health official in the North has said that dead bodies are being found in roads and also in houses.

“When I came back from Moongilaaru Hospital I saw two, three dead bodies near a tractor. And some people are trying to dispose of the bodies. I heard some stories that some relatives buried some bodies in the closest available places, because they don’t have time to do ceremonial traditions for these people.”

The LTTE also practices forced labour including sending civilians to work at the frontiers. Amnesty International calls on LTTE to end the practice of forcibly recruiting civilians, including children.

The organisation is also calling on the LTTE to lift its restrictions on civilians to allow them to move to areas of safety.

“The Tamil Tigers must let injured civilians go,” says Yolanda Foster, “preventing civilians from accessing medical care constitutes a war crime.

“For its part, the Sri Lankan government must allow independent monitoring of the situation for the displaced in the Wanni. It must also remove restrictions on freedom of movement for the displaced fleeing the Wanni housed in transitional camps and meet its obligations to protect civilians and to respect and protect human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Away from the front lines, the general human rights situation in government-controlled areas has deteriorated. Amnesty International is appalled at the increasing instances of attacks on the media, journalists and human rights defenders including the recent assassination of the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunge in Colombo.

At least 14 media workers have been unlawfully killed in Sri Lanka since the beginning of 2006. Others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured and allegedly disappeared while in the custody of security forces. More than 20 journalists have left the country in response to death threats.

“Without a free media that is able to express alternative views and offer the opportunity for public scrutiny, abuses can flourish under a veil of secrecy and denial,” said Yolanda Foster.  “Sri Lanka’s climate of impunity for attacks on the media has made it impossible to get an accurate impartial picture of what is happening in the country.

“By threatening journalists with the risk of arrest, and failing to protect them from attack, the government is failing its citizens. Sri Lankan authorities must ensure that the country’s media are allowed to work without restriction and in safety.”