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Asia-pacific

UN chief demands aid access to displaced Tamil refugees

Video by Catherine NICHOLSON , Philippe LEVASSEUR

Latest update : 2009-05-24

On a visit Saturday to a Sri Lankan camp housing 200,000 Tamils who fled clashes between the army and Tamil Tiger rebels, UN chief Ban Ki-moon (background) said he was "very moved" by the plight of the displaced, who lack adequate food and water.

AFP - They dodged bullets from retreating Tamil Tiger separatists and braved shelling by the Sri Lankan army before reaching safety at Menik Farm, Sri Lanka's biggest refugee complex.
   
Some 200,000 Tamil civilians have now found temporary shelter in the government-run centre after escaping brutal fighting between the powerful army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.
   

Just days after Colombo declared victory over the rebels, visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon came face-to-face Saturday with the despair of war-hit civilians as he toured the main refugee camp and flew over the devastated war zone.
   
Ban, on a 24-hour lightning visit to Sri Lanka, spent 20 minutes walking through Menik Farm where the displaced are housed in corrugated iron shacks and UN-provided tents, facing a lack of food, water and proper sanitation.
   
Some camp dwellers complained of having only one bottle of water to drink for a whole week.
   
"I'm very moved after what I have seen," he said after his tour of the area which had been off-limits to reporters and almost all foreign aid agencies as the war reached its bloody conclusion.
   
Sri Lankan authorities at Menik Farm glowingly described government efforts to shelter the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and plans to resettle them within six months.
   
Yet the sprawling centre, 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of Colombo and being expanded to accommodate an influx of refugees in recent days, is ringed by barbed wire and guarded by military police and gun-toting soldiers.
   
Tamil activists have likened the so-called "welfare villages" to concentration camps -- an allegation denied by Sri Lankan authorities.
   
"They (IDPs) aren't allowed to leave and they can't receive visitors," said Gerson Brandao, a UN field coordination officer, who also deplored the fact that the UN was not involved in screening suspected rebel fighters.
   
"The separation of LTTE fighters started a few weeks ago," Brandao said. "Some 1,900 ex-combatants were taken to the Nelukkuman rehabilitation centre."
   
Few of the refugees whom Sri Lankan authorities said were used as "human shields" by the LTTE spoke English. Those who did appeared reluctant to say much.
   
One 32-year-old man, who identified himself as Arunttavarasa, said through an interpreter he arrived at Menik Farm 18 days ago after escaping the northeastern coastal conflict zone where LTTE fighters made their last stand.
   
"My mother was killed by (army) shelling," he told reporters while his wife showed a bandaged leg wound, also the result of shelling.
   
Asked whether the tight security in the camp was meant to stop people leaving, Ban replied: "I don't think they are holding them back for any particular purpose.
   
"They're trying to resettle them, to reintegrate them," he said. "That is the Sri Lanka government's commitment."
   
But "there seems to be a clear limitation in their capacity to resettle these people. The UN is going to try to fill the gap."

  
Ban's arrival in the country was greeted with songs by girls in white uniforms waving UN and Sri Lankan flags. One banner read: "We welcome UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to our Motherland."
   
The UN cavalcade stopped at a government-run clinic where he saw around 100 elderly patients, some with gaping wounds who were caught in the conflict.
   
"There are huge challenges that can only be overcome by strong support from the international community," Ban said.
   
Ban later flew by helicopter over the coastal conflict zone in the northeast which was a desolate, cratered area with burnt-out vehicles and charred buildings along with an abandoned tent city. There were virtually no signs of any people.
   
He appealed for full integration of the Tamil minority as part of "national reconciliation." The Tamils make up 12.6 percent of the 20 million population of the Sinhalese-majority island.
   
"It is time for Sri Lankans to heal the wounds and unite," he said.

 

Date created : 2009-05-24

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