by Nimmi Gowrinathan
When the cameras came, everyone came to the edges of the IDP camp. One hand on the hot metal of a barbed wire fence, the emptiness in their eyes was captured in images flashed around the world as the military campaign of the Government of Sri Lanka came to end.
The cameras are gone now, but the people remain. Nearly 300,000 civilians who have lived through 30 years of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE). Most recently they have fled conflict zones in the NorthEast, where they faced daily shelling, even in designated “safe zones”. In search of safety, they traveled on foot for days, a few meager belongings piled atop their heads, gingerly stepping over dead bodies strewn across the dirt roads. Some pleaded with relatives, neighbors who made the difficult choice to stay, rather than face the misery of what quickly became overcrowded “internment camps”.
Each internally displaced person is interviewed as they enter, they cover their faces to protect from dust, smoke from one collective stove, and the pervasive, overwhelming, stench. Some do not enter: young men (husbands and fathers) suspected of being “terrorist supporters” are taken to detention centers with little to no access to the outside world.
Pregnant women left behind in the overcrowded camps often have to care for young children who cannot accompany them on the journey to the closest hospital, where thousands of patients wait for the services of a handful of doctors, working in a half-shelled hospital with only 300 beds. Newborns are brought back to an inhospitable environment, where breastfeeding must be done in public under the gaze of loitering soldiers, and children become among those most vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases such as chicken pox and hepatitis. Nearly half of some camps are recent amputee victims. They sit together in the tiny pockets of available shade. Children look for a place to play, carefully avoiding the women wandering aimlessly around the camps, suffering from severe psychiatric breakdowns.
And of all this misery, a lucrative trade has emerged. Liquor, groceries, can be purchased by those able to access remittances from abroad, the entire transaction going through the military or others in a position to profit from suffering. Perhaps what has made these camps the “worst place in the world” (http://humanitarianrelief.change.org/blog/view/wednesday_award_for_the_worst_place_in_the_world_12) is the continued silence. The silence of the international community, the silence of intimidated journalists and humanitarian workers, and the silence of the civilians. The hunger has weakened their bodies, the trauma has silenced their minds, the fear has prevented questions, and the fatigue has made it impossible to hope for help.
Nimmi Gowrinathan is the Director of South Asia Programs at Operation USA (www.opusa.org), and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at UCLA.