06/25/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Six priests held prisoner and in solitary confinement in refugee camps

Ranil Kumaratunga
Four priests of the diocese of Jaffna and 2 OMI missionaries who lived among the Tamil population until the last moments of the war. The conditions are on the verge of collapse and humanitarian organizations have their hands tied. The Army oversees the refugees in search of traces of the Tamil Tigers.

Chennai (AsiaNews) - Six Catholic priests are kept in isolation in the camps of Sri Lanka. The bishop of Jaffna has requested their release, but has not yet received any response from the Ministry of Defense. A humanitarian worker working in the fields in which 300 thousand displaced persons live tells their story and denounces the disappearance of three government doctors who had circulated the figures of the dead during the last days of war between the army and Tamil Tigers. There is no news of their fate. Ranil Kumaratunga is a name we use to maintain the anonymity of the source of AsiaNews.

 

The Government of Sri Lanka should immediately release the six Catholic priests who were imprisoned and kept in secret solitary confinement in centres for Internally displaced persons (IDPs). Four are from the diocese of Jaffna, and two belong to Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (OMI). These priests unselfishly helped Tamil people during the war,  until the last hours of the military campaign. These priests have only helped people. The Government of Sri Lanka has put them in isolation in the IDP camps where no-one is allowed contact with them.  There are fears for their safety, their emotional and psychological conditions, and also for their physical health. The bishop of Jaffna has asked the Secretary of Defense for the release of the six priests, but so far there has been no response.

After that the army has carried out the operation to remove the leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in the war zone had been a few people. The military have taken and taken to isolated places because they were the only eyewitnesses of brutality carried out in the safety zone. Among these people there were six priests.

During the final phase the war, 25 thousand Tamils were killed. The authorities in Colombo must release the three government doctors who published the statistics of the number of victims – data the authorities reject. The three doctors, after being accused of complicity with the LTTE, have disappeared.

 

The IDP camps are scattered between Mannar and Vavuniya. Approximately 500 hectares of land occupied by forests [equal to 5 sq km, ed] were evacuated and now the inhabitants of the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu and people living in certain areas of Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya are held in refugee camps.

Around 300 thousand people live in camps, in tents and temporary accommodation. The tents are five for five people, but house between 15 and 16 people. There is a chronic shortage of water and lack of health services for everyone: for about 1500 people there are only two bathrooms. The request of humanitarian agencies to build at least 2500 toilets is of absolute urgency. All refugees are living in detention and internment centres which lack adequate food supplies, medicine and shelter, with no access to information or possibilities of outside communication.

Because of the painful situation in the camps a large number of elderly people die of infections like diarrhoea and chickenpox which spread quickly. There is an urgent need to organize relief services and humanitarian organizations must be allowed to work in the camps.

There is a fundamental need for treatment and psychological support to help people who have been traumatized by war. NGO’s are not allowed to work among the people: they can visit the camps, bringing aid but they must hand it over to the military who are the only ones allowed to distribute it. They control the camps and take keep everyone under constant surveillance. The priests who are allowed to celebrate mass are always accompanied by the army.

The world is silent before this tragedy. No journalist, no agency, no human rights activist, and even relatives of the IDPs are allowed visit the camps. People who live there are deprived of their freedom and want to know when the government will allow them to return home. The authorities say that the areas from which the refugees come are dotted with mines and it takes time to render them safe, so they must remain in IDP camps.

The government keeps the refugees segregated for fear of LTTE militants infiltrating the camps. Plainclothes agents of the intelligence services roam the camp, checking on every possible sign that may reveal the presence of cells or supporters of the Tamil Tigers; some people have disappeared.

 

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(with the collaboration of Nirmala Carvalho)

 

 

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