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Where are they alive, or dead?

Mass detention of LTTE “suspects” shadows post-war era (1)

by Yu-Kyung Lee, Sri Lanka, 19 November 2010

It seems no one bothers ‘them’ in Sri Lanka. No lawyer or rights groups in the country would dare to talk of ‘their’ basic legal rights. Deserve to be abandoned or deserve to be ‘disappeared’? Tamil Tigers (or LTTE), a textbook of suicide bombing which made them the world branded “terrorists”, have become ‘prisoners of war’ (or POA) ever since its dead end in May 2009. Tens of thousands LTTE cadres, including “suspects”, were either captured alive or surrendered during the last stage of war. The fate of some of them has not been known, while some have been located in various detention camps due to the desperate efforts of their family, who are then allowed to visit their loved ones under the army’s lookout.  However, some families including Buddima’ (32, F) hardly made a visit as they are too poor to afford transport.

Buddima’s husband has been detained in Boosa camp in outskirt of Colombo. She has made just a few visits for the past 8 months. “Whenever I visited, I was also subject to be interrogated” she said. “My husband was an aid worker for Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO, pro-rebel aid group). He was a paid staff. He never was a combatant” she added.

During the last days of war, the army kept announcing at Omanthai checkpoint – the main check point near war zone – that anyone who’s been involved in LTTE for even a day has to surrender. “The surrendees will be free immediately or at most three months” it said. On this basis, Rangitha (43) pressured on her 25 year-old son to surrender, as many other mothers did. However, her son remains to be in detention after a year-and-a-half without being charged or facing trial.

“My son was conscripted by LTTE in April 2007 but he fled the LTTE next year. I had had to take care of his body waste for nearly two years, hiding him inside the bunker” said the grieving mother.

photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Conscripted by the rebels, detained by the army

There are said to be a dozen of “surrendees camps” in Northern Sri Lanka. But the number of these camps and their locations are varied depending on who you ask. The state-owned Daily News recently quoted the minister of rehabilitation and prison reform, D E W Gunesekara, saying 5,819 out of 11,696 detainees have been released as of October 23. This figure doesn’t include 800 alleged LTTE members who were to be charged.

“It’s not a detention center, but ‘rehabilitation center’. You yourself come over here to observe it” said Brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe, who has been in charge of the camps since February. “Having spent time together for more than a year, ex-combatants and the army are in friendly mood” he argued.

However, former detainees tell a different story.

“A day in the camp starts by singing national anthem in Sinhalese, the language of majority ethnic. There was one boy who had to kneel down under scorch sun all day long because he didn’t sing it properly. There’s another boy who got kicked by army boots because he coughed while anthem was playing” said Jeya (39) a former detainee.

photo: channel 4

Only Sinhalese – the language of majority ethnic - was spoken in the camps, which most Tamil detainees couldn’t understand, he said. Therefore, those who speak Sinhalese among detainees would become a ‘leader’ of small groups to pass on the army orders to others. Nevertheless, there were still communication problems followed by ‘punishment’.

“In December, one boy who didn’t move promptly when the army said ‘disperse’ was kicked down. He couldn’t understand that word in Sinhalese. That was actually one of many cases”

Jeya, who is disabled in one leg, was released in April 10, when the disabled prisoners and women detainees with children were the first batch of detainees to be let out. A week before his release, he was brought to a school compound nearby his ‘rehabilitation center’ along with 106 others.

“In that school, I heard about imminent release. But one person died of unknown reason and another six were taken by Terrorist Investigation Department (or TID). The six were various disabled. One was blind, two lost one eye. Another one lost one eye and one hand. Another boy lost one leg…etc. I don’t know where they were taken to and why.”

There have been reports that some detainees were transferred from ‘rehabilitaion centers’ to Boosa camp by TID. However, it is difficult to trace as there is no formal registration process for LTTE suspects overseen by an independent agency, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Given the Sri Lanka dark history of “disappearing” thousands of opponents, there is a legitimate fear some LTTE suspects have been disappeared. The former UN spokesperson Gorden Weiss wrote in Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail on August 28 that “the UN is currently reviewing 5,749 cases of Sri Lanka’s disappearance”. On top of that, a few video footages where seemingly rebels prisoners got shot by the soldiers in army uniform at point blank or tortured to ‘apparent’ death, have been disclosed by various rights groups.

Another incident that Jeya talked of, strokes such fears.

“One day morning the army said three detainees, who did not show up at the gathering for national anthem, ran away the previous night”.

When asked if he believed it, he said.

“Well, we had to believe whatever the army said. But the camp’s surrounded with twofold fences and heavily guarded by armed soldiers. We were told if anyone tried to run away, soldiers would shoot immediately.”

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* photo (right): A grieving mother whose son was surrendered to the army to be detained.

** photo (left): Channel 4 in the UK has revealed months ago of extrajudicial killing of rebels. There are legitimate fear that some of detainees of LTTE 'suspects' could disappear.

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