During the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, the island nation’s government barred the media and other observers from entering the war zone. As a result, first-hand accounts of the conditions facing the hundreds of thousands of Tamils forced to flee their homes, and later interned in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps, were practically non-existent.
But on the ground during the final weeks of intense fighting was Denise Otis, a Canadian employed at the Montreal office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. After 15 years representing mostly asylum seekers before the Immigration and Refugee Board, Ms. Otis joined the UNHCR as a legal officer in 2004. Eager for field experience, Ms. Otis volunteered for the UNHCR’s emergency roster team, and after some training in Sweden, spent May and June among Sri Lanka’s internally displaced Tamils.
Last week, Embassy spoke with Ms. Otis about her experiences. This is an edited transcript of her reflections on her time in Vavuniya, a town which swelled with internally displaced peoples in the war’s aftermath:
When you were dealing with the IDPs near the end of the conflict, what were they telling you? What state were they in?
“We were not alone there, of course. There were many organizations, and it was a huge operation at the very beginning because these people were coming down to the checkpoint called Omanti. At this spot the people were registered, a very brief registration, and sent to camps.
“And so at that checkpoint, [Doctors Without Borders] was present, and trying to cover the cases they could monitor…. One important task for UNHCR was what we call presence protection, to be there and observe what’s happening. We were visible with our T-shirts and caps, and we were allowed to be present to monitor what was going on.
“[The IDPs] had just left courageously, they were survivors of war. They were in bad shape. They had been under fire for a few months, and some of them had practically lived in bunkers. Some of them were injured; they had been victims of shelling. They were all extremely tired. They also had had problems of access to food.
“I myself witnessed the case of a young boy—my boy’s age, an 11-year-old—who was dehydrated and they were going to lose him, but they finally fortunately succeeded in resuscitating him. It was something very [deeply moving] to witness.
“At the beginning, a lot of people were sent to schools and community centres in Vavuniya City. Because the arrivals were sudden, it was very difficult half the time to establish proper camps and so on.
“The first protection that you try to give people is for their lives, so you need shelter and food and so on. UNHCR, in terms of shelter, had, thanks to donations, sufficient shelters, mainly tents, to protect those people at the beginning. But it was huge numbers of displaced…in total at the beginning about 280,000 people.
“So obviously, at the beginning the authorities, including the army, were taken a bit off guard because of all the displacements and what it meant in terms of sheltering. You have to remember, we were in a context of war, and obviously the LTTE cadre, the combatants, were also among those people who were being displaced. So the Sri Lankan army wanted to make sure that the combatants would be apart from the civilians. So there was a screening process going on at this particular checkpoint.”
Broadly speaking, how did the Sri Lankan army treat the IDPs?
“We were very much constrained as humanitarians, we were not allowed on roads before eight o’clock and after six o’clock pm, for security reasons.
“When we were there we did not, generally speaking, see any mistreatment. But the bottom line is…that they are encircled by barbed wire. Generally speaking, there is no freedom of movement, which is one of the basic principles applied to internally displaced peoples. There is a [UNHCR] guideline that exists on IDPs, and it’s very clear that the very first principle of these guidelines is freedom of movement.
“In Sri Lanka, many people had been displaced in the past, including when the tsunami took place. And I saw some of these settlements of people who had been displaced in 1998, and these people had never been constrained, never been submitted to confinement like that.
“The main reason given by the government, and I think UNHCR understood the fact, that because of the context, the government thought it was better for security reasons to confine those people. But the situation is that they are still confined.”
What are some of the things that stick out clearest in your mind about the situation in those camps?
“Well it’s heavily militarized around the camps. At the beginning the army was also in the camps, but they were eventually replaced by civilians. I think this was also thanks to advocacy from UNHCR, because that’s another principle: the camps cannot be militarized.
“Nevertheless, it’s still militarized outside, but inside now it’s civilians, which is a good improvement. But it was a first impression, that that was a bit contrary to the principles.
“Of course the fact that the people are confined is something that catches the attention. It’s barbed wire and you see kids, old age people, and so on. Now, I have to tell you that the government of Sri Lanka has established rules where people 60 and above and the kids 10 and below were allowed, according to various rules and procedures, to leave the camps. So a certain number have been released, but Vavuniya is a small town. The infrastructure did not necessarily exist, but they did their best to have those people find a place to live.”
Has any progress been made?
“The basic rights have to come through. Sanitation, water, etcetera. And now I know they have made a lot of efforts in order for the kids to have access to education. They also made efforts to decongest those huge camps where too many people were jammed at the beginning. Now they put them in other camps.
“They have the intention to resettle, meaning they will be sent back to where they came from, but because of the war situation, the demining, the operation can still take some time.”
Why are they still in the camps?
“It’s not that all the territory has been mined, but it’s risky to send them back to where they come from, that’s the reason that’s given.
“So for the moment, they’re trying their best, I guess, to make sure people are fed, but the problem remains they are confined, and that’s something UNHCR is advocating [against]. In Pakistan, people were sent also to their families, people who could not do otherwise, they are in camps, but are free to move, and they have the option to go.”
I understand there are a number of Canadians are among the IDPs. How are they?
“I must admit when I was there I didn’t know about [those Canadians]. I heard about it afterward. But the fact is yes, there are.
“Some [foreign] people had been in the areas, because they attended a funeral, or were on holidays or were coming from a wedding or whatever, and were caught in the situation and so they found themselves in the camps. That’s pretty unfortunate.
“The monsoon season is coming, and that’s something I dread for them, because they are in tents and when it rains, it rains…and there’s no flooring. When I was there, there was a half hour rain and it was a total disaster.”
Do you think peace is in the cards now for Sri Lanka ?
“The people want it, right. The Tamils, the ones I talked to, want to do like everyone else: be in peace, raise their kids peacefully and be able to go out in the evening. War is war, and at one point you just want to be at peace. That’s what they want, most of them.”
It seems to me that the main thing where the Sri Lankan government is falling afoul here is the freedom of movement issues.
“That’s a big issue, yes. Because it’s the basis of guidelines on IDPs and it’s also a principle that is in the Declaration of Human Rights. It’s not out of the blue, it’s really the fundamentals of international law, and we have the mandate and the duty to repeat it, here and everywhere.”