06/05/2009, 00.00
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Tamil refugees in Chettikulam: just like in a concentration camp

The testimony of a social worker after a visit to the camp where hundreds of thousands live. Lack of water and overcrowded tents, families separated and insufficient medical personal to care for the sick.
Colombo (AsiaNews) - “Hundreds of thousands of people forced to one on top of the other. It’s a camp on the edge of collapse that brings to mind the Nazi concentration camps we see in the films or read about in books”. A social worker who has just returned from a visit to the refugee camp in Chettikulam, 20 km from Vanni, describes her encounter with the refugees to AsiaNews and the conditions they find themselves in as survivors of the war between the army and the Tamil Tigers.
The Chettikulam is the same one visited by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, but Prasanna – a fictitious name to protect the person’s identity – succeeded in speaking with the refugees.
“The camp is divided in two and each part has 5 or 6 zones, I cannot say precisely how many people are housed there, what is certain is that there are hundreds of thousands”. The area which has been built over forest is a massive sprawl of tents. Prasanna tells of “thousands of 3 by 3 metre tents, in each one of which up to four families are sheltered together”.  Each family unit is assigned 10 litres of water “but they have to use it for everything, for personal hygiene, for drinking, for the babies.  There is not enough water and it very difficult to come by outside of the allotted quota”.
For food the refugees have to go to the canteen tent set up by the government.  “Adults, elderly and children eat the same things. There is no powdered milk or food supplements for the smallest children or new borns”.
“Walking around the camp – continues Prasanna – I saw so many orphans, from the age of one onwards.  The older girls or other families take care of them, but this is not always easy”.  Often husbands and wives live separately in different areas of the camp without being able to see each other.  “Families are divided and children too. Some are with their mothers, others with their fathers or relatives”.
 “Boys, girls and adults between 25 and 40 are under strict military surveillance – explains the eye witness – because they are suspected of being supporters of the Tamil Tigers”.
Sanitary conditions are dramatic. “People are kept waiting for lengthy periods of time for medical treatment.  There are two people per bed in the camp hospital, very few doctors and nurses in relation to the huge need for care.  Those who are there work until they collapse from exhaustion.  They work 12 hour shifts, but even then they can’t help everyone”.
 “On the issue of education – the AsiaNews source confirms – it’s true that there are some teachers present in the camp, but no classes have been organised for the different age groups, and there are no facilities or material for the students to study with.  The school year has been lost”.
Prasanna tells of some religious present in Chettikulam. “I met two Salvatorian priests and three Holy Family sisters.  In a complete state of shock. They told me they had fled the war zone with 60 children in their after having spent three days in shelters dug in the sand.  During their flight for safety they saw the ground littered with bodies and wild dogs scavenging around them.  Once priest, unable to withstand the sight, died of a heart attack”.
(With the collaboration of Nirmala Carvalho)
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