(Written 19th May 2009)
I was in Colombo yesterday, the day they overran the LTTE.
In the grand scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t a world event. It made international headlines for a couple of days. The overthrow of a notorious rebel group. The slaughter of a group of men dubbed psychopaths and meglomaniacs, along with several hundred of their most stalwart fighters. More than thirty years of implied and overt conflict, finally brought to a bloody and inauspicious end at the edge of a salty lagoon on a strip of sandy coastline that few people- other than its locals- have ever seen or heard of- let alone know how to pronounce properly. Mired in controversy amidst allegations of human rights abuses on all sides and the alleged slaughter of cilivians.
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The following post was written some time ago for friends and family while on deployment in a restricted context.
The day I get my permission to head north we get clearance to get into the camps. They’re controlled by the military- an affront to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)- but this isn’t our country so we work with what we’re given.
The Checkpoint is twenty k’s north of Town. The IDPs (our user-friendly acronym for Internally Displaced People; the word refugee relates to people who flee across an international border and has specific conotations under IHL, while IDPs stay within their country of origin) come through here to get to the camps. The UN reckons up to 190,000 of them are stuck in a tiny strip of coastline a few kilometres long and about sixty klicks from here. They’re in an area known as the Safe Zone (SZ). The SZ is a few hundred metres from the battle lines pitched between the army and the rebels.
Sitting in the SZ, these civilians are getting shelled by either the army, or maybe the rebels, or maybe both. Nobody knows. But we do know that they’re getting shot at if they try and leave the SZ by the Rebels, who are using them as a human shield to stop the army using aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, and that the SZ is one of the greatest misnomers since ‘misnomer’ was first coined. It’s not a pretty picture. One of the worst, actually. Dozens are getting killed each day, hundreds more injured and maimed. The IDPs trickle through in small groups, risking their lives to do so. When they make it to ‘safe’ territory, the government considers them as possible terrorists, so it takes them first to a screening post deep within the military-controlled north where there are no international monitors, before shipping them south to the Checkpoint.
The Checkpoint is the second screening post. The IDPs get trucked here, then dropped off and detained for a while. Maybe a few hours. Maybe a few days. Military intelligence is looking for any rebels it can find hidden in the population. They’re not wrong to be worried. A few weeks ago a female rebel blew herself up at one of these checkpoints, killing nearly a dozen people including three soldiers. However it doesn’t merit locking up an entire subpopulation of the country on the basis of their ethnicity.
The Checkpoint is up in no man’s land. Aid agencies haven’t gotten in here for six months. We’re going this morning for the first time…
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