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Situation in Mannar

(June 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I’m a Catholic Priest, of the Diocese of Mannar, in Northern Sri Lanka, where war continues to rage today, as it had for almost three decades now, with civilians caught in the crossfire between the Government Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), says Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos, on behalf of Pax Romana, during the interactive dialogue with Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary executions.

Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos said further in his statement,

Today, I speak on behalf of the people of Mannar. For decades, our daily reality has been the destruction of our property, curbs on vital fishing and farming, arbitrary arrests, torture, forced conscription, killings, disappearances, with practically no one called to account for these atrocities. Almost everyone in Mannar has been displaced at least once, and some as many as seventeen times! One-fourth of the population of Mannar is internally displaced today.

I highlight four situations:

Hundreds of people fleeing the territory controlled by the LTTE, as well as refugees returning from India, are being confined to a snake-infested “open prison” in Kalimoddai by the Sri Lankan military since March 2008, against their wishes. [1]

Nine months ago, the Sri Lankan military took control of Musali Division, forcibly displacing more than 4000 people. The government still refuses to allow anyone to return home, despite initial promises to do so within a few days. Last month, government forces asked people who had undergone training by the LTTE to report to their camps, and then beat and threatened them. More than 200 people fled to India in fear after this. Some people in camps also face restrictions of movement, with their national identity cards confiscated.[2]

Humanitarian workers in Mannar also face attacks, travel restrictions, arbitrary detention and threats. Three aid workers in the district, including a Catholic Priest, rendering assistance to the displaced have been killed in 2007 and no one has been held accountable.[3]

Churches have been the traditional places where people seek refuge, but even in these, security is not guaranteed to the displaced. Madhu Shrine, a sacred Catholic place of worship, had offered refuge to thousands of displaced through decades of war. Although the Army has now taken control of the Madhu Shrine, the Government is yet to declare it as a “zone of peace” in writing, despite repeated requests by the Catholic Church and others[4]. Almost two years after the attack on the Church of Pesalai, where displaced persons were taking refuge, and one person was killed and many injured, no one has been prosecuted or convicted.

I seek the views of the Representative and the Special Rapporteur on how to address these issues in line with international standards.

I urge the Council to make these pleas its own and further, address the urgent needs of the displaced in Mannar, especially to guarantee their freedom to choose where they seek refuge and to move about freely and ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and places of refuge.

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[1] 100 people being held in the camp had signed a petition asking to be allowed to live with their friends and relatives, on 10th April 2008. According to UNHCR reports, the number of IDPs arriving in Mannar by sea from LTTE-held areas is increasing, with 20 individuals (11 families) arriving between 1st – 8th May 2008. According to government statistics, as of 11th May 2008, 116 families and 259 persons are confined to the Kalimoddai camp. In May 2008, refugees returning from South India have also been confined to this camp, against their will. The camp is a totally unsuitable place to live: snake-infested, without electricity in common areas. Yet people are virtually detained there, including pregnant women, elderly, children and university students, whose education has abruptly halted. So desperate are people to leave the camp that they initially refused to accept assistance for fear this may prolong their enforced stay. Most are not even allowed to go out of the camp: 30 out of 250 residents may do so, and they must return within the day, issued with a temporary ‘pass’.

[2] The security forces had publicly urged members of the LTTE to surrender, including those who had undergone training. People in areas controlled by the LTTE are often forced to undergo training. The call to surrender terrified them; those who did so were taken to a military camp; many were beaten or threatened that, should soldiers die in battle, they would be killed too.

[3] On 24th March 2007, Muthuraja Aruleswaran of Tamil Rehabilitation Organization was killed, on 26th Sept. 2007, Rev. Fr. N. Pakiaranjith, Catholic Priest and Coordinator of Jesuit Refugee Service was killed and on 10th Nov., Mr. Gouthu Jalaltheen of the Rural Development Foundation was killed. No one has been prosecuted or convicted for any of these killings. The ban on taking vehicles from Northern Provinces south of Medawachchiya, the gateway to the rest of Sri Lanka, as well as arbitrary restrictions, such as the one imposed on those entering Mannar in the week middle of April have also reduced the space for humanitarian workers and restricted supplies.

[4] As the Sri Lankan army advanced to take control of Madhu Shrine, all the displaced people, priests and staff of the Shrine, fled the Shrine with the sacred statue. Many individuals and groups, including the Catholic Bishop of Mannar (the legitimate administrator of the Shrine), the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, priests and Catholics in Mannar as well as rest of Sri Lanka and overseas have been requesting the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka to recognize the Madhu Shrine as a Zone of Peace, and for the Government to formally declare it as such through a Special Gazette notification.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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