5 May 2010

Claims of abuse in Sri Lanka’s Tamil refugee camps

Reports Channel 4 News on sexual abuse and disappearances from the Tamil refugee camp in the Sri Lankan city of Vavuniya led to Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh being expelled from the country.

Shocking claims emerged of shortages of food and water, dead bodies left where they have fallen, women separated from their families, and even sexual abuse.

Channel 4 News obtained the first independently filmed pictures from the internment camps set up by the Sri Lankan government to house Tamils who have fled the country’s civil war.

There were at least a hundred thousand Tamils from the country’s north held in these camps, and while the government insists their stay there was temporary, at the time there was not a concrete plan for their resettlement into the country’s north, according to aid workers.

Channel 4 News obtained the first independently filmed pictures from the internment camps.

As access to the camps was prohibited to journalists, unless they were under military escort, independent information about conditions inside was hard to come by.

But Channel 4 News managed to send a cameraman into the camps who filmed without army escort. The cameraman also interviewed a number of relatives of people held inside and, importantly, a number of aid workers.

They gave the first independent testimony of life inside the camps. Stories of children trampled in the rush to get food; of three women’s bodies found in a bathing area in the open. They wanted their identities hidden, but spoke of the thirst, the struggle that came here after the perilous trek from the frontlines.

Channel 4 News team expelled and deported
Nick Paton Walsh, his cameraman Matt Jasper, and producer Bessie Du has been reporting from the country for Channel 4 News since 19 April. All three were told they were being deported by the country's Defence Minister on 9 May following the report broadcast on 5 May.

Nick Paton Walsh wrote: "I'd spoken amicably to defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa 45 minutes earlier about getting some better access to Sri Lanka's 25-year war. But this time he was calling me, and seemed to have remembered something.

"'Who is this? You rang me earlier? Is this Channel 4? You have been accusing my soldiers of raping civilians? Your visa is cancelled, you will be deported. You can report what you like about this country, but from your own country, not from here.'

"I'm missing out my interjections, but that's pretty much how you get deported in Sri Lanka.

Read more from Nick Paton Walsh's blog

One man said he is an aid worker at the camp: “Personally I saw four dead bodies inside the camp – three women and a man,” he said. “Worms came out of the mouth of one – it must have been there for three to four days.

“People just live with the dead bodies without doing anything. Some children were close to one – they didn’t know it was dead. People don’t know who to complain to, so they just leave it.

“People just live with the dead bodies without doing anything. People don’t know who to complain to, so they just leave it.” Nick Paton Walsh

“I saw mothers unable to feed their children. One asked me with tears for two spoons of milk powder to feed her kid but I couldn’t help her.”

There were stories of families separated by war, and then imprisoned apart during the peace; stories of fathers and mothers without their children. One man looking for his parents said: “There’s still kids here without their parents. They live through hardship. We don’t have a life here. This is a jail. We don’t know who is alive and who is dead.”

The aid worker said: “We learned of two children who died when they were caught up in a crowd that was trying to get at a food distribution truck. People were exhausted. They were only thinking about getting food – nothing else. Not even children under their feet. There’s a lack of coordination and competence here. The government’s only objective is to eradicate people from the areas the Tamil Tigers controlled.”

Sri Lanka map

The government denied these allegations and said it was mounting a huge aid effort. But another aid worker at the camp made a more serious claim. She said she believed soldiers were abducting young women and sexually abusing them.

“One elderly mother crying inside the camp,” she said. “I asked why. She said they’d taken her daughter away and she hadn’t heard from her at all.

“There are many people taken from the camps that go missing. The women are sexually abused. No-one takes any action. There’s no-one to complain to.

“Nobody dares to talk. They know they’re being watched. They’re afraid they’ll go missing.”

“Nobody dares to talk. They know they’re being watched. They’re afraid they’ll go missing.” Nick Paton Walsh

She said women had to bathe in the open, in front of everyone in the camp – an indignity that has also sparked grave fears for their safety. The day before Nick Paton Walsh’s report was aired, aid workers found the bodies of at least three women dead, at a bathing area of the camp called Zone 2. It was not clear how they died.

But the incident caused the UN to ask for the soldiers guarding the bathing area to be replaced by 20 female police officers and for civilians, not the police and army, to investigate complaints of sexual abuse in the camp.

The military said the allegations were part of a Tamil Tiger information war against it.

The response from Sri Lankan officials
Nick Paton Walsh wrote: "We went out of our way to get a government response: the army spokesperson, Brigadier Nanayakkara, refused twice a request to go on camera, so in the end we pushed through the foreign ministry and got a cabinet minister - Keheliya Rambukwella - who on camera accepted that if such things had happened, the perpetrators should be punished, but reminded us this was a new camp and instances of such abuse could be expected in any population of a hundred thousand people.

"The next day I went into the foreign ministry and the Media Centre for National Security to try and clear the air. The MCNS - sort of the military's tool for censorship - is run by Lakshman Hulugalle.

"He explained that I had damaged the country's image and would later hear of their 'measures' against me. He did not discuss the truth of the allegations at all. It took another three days for me to learn what those measures were.

"There is a broader reason why deportation, not rapid rebuttal, was the chosen method in dealing with our allegations. The government is intolerant of a critical press. Journalists get killed - most notoriously Lasantha Wickrematunge - an editor assassinated in January.

"The line for our crew was at passport control, but you realise what crossing the line for Sri Lankan journalists means."

Read more from Nick Paton Walsh's blog

Sri Lankan defence spokesman, minister Keheliya Rambukwelle, said: “There is a huge propaganda mission wave against Sri Lanka.

“There again, as I’ve told you that when you have two or three hundred thousand IDPs they are not going to be perfect and absolutely fine. I mean, I’d be a great liar if I said so.”

“There is a huge propaganda mission wave against Sri Lanka.” Keheliya Rambukwelle

He said that soldiers would be punished if they were found to be involved in abuse of disappearances. “Definitely. We will take a course of action, a legal course of action and then they’ll be punished, because our forces, we know that they’re one of the most disciplined forces.”

That was not something human rights groups agreed with. “There are paramilitary and military forces active in and around the camps with a history of basically disappearing people,” Tom Malinowski from Human Rights Watch said. “People are extremely vulnerable and not getting the help that they need.”

Execution video
Three months after Sri Lanka declared victory over the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, Channel 4 News broadcast footage apparently showing government troops summarily executing Tamils during the final push of the war.

Sri Lankan officials branded the video as a fake, but a UN investigation said it "appears authentic".

The video was obtained by the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka and Channel 4 News broadcast it on 25 August 2009. It provoked an angry reaction, with Sri Lankan army spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara immediately saying the footage was a fabrication designed to discredit security forces.

However, a report commissioned by the UN's Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston examined the video frame-by-frame and a group of experts said they could find no evidence that the video was a fake.

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