Cartography of shame
Vesak in Polonnaruwa was quiet, for it is Poson that sees the most fervour, when pandols and dansal abound to celebrate the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Yet there were devotees in their hundreds, jostling private prayer with loudspeaker chants, as a full moon was occasionally glimpsed over the Parakrama Samudraya. It’s impossible to not feel a sense of awe in the midst of the ruins of what the JHU recently called our ‘Buddhist hydraulic civilization’. Walking amidst imposing ruins, you heard folklore recounted – of the great Sinhala kings and their harems, their conquests, their legacy. Myth entwined with ignorance, fact and fiction made these tales wonderful to tune into and particularly revealing of a certain Sinhala Buddhist mindset that chose to understand and endure social, economic and political decay today by escaping to and living vicariously in a glorious past.
Ironically, even the celebration of Vesak over the last weekend was unable to prevent the deaths of 106 children, around 400 civilians and severe injuries to thousands of others. This was by any yardstick, a bloody week. A court order issued late April I got via email from the Vavuniya District Magistrate Court flagged up to 30 cases in IDP camps where senior citizens had passed away due to the starvation and malnutrition and without any special care. Justice A. K. Alexraja goes on note, “more death tolls have been registered due to lack of the maintenance and caring mechanisms. As there were no proper caring mechanisms for elders, they were dying, and the bodies were not timely removed, the surrounding is highly subject to the threat of diseases in the area.” Compare this with a media release by the Secretary, Ministry of Healthcare & Nutrition on 5 March 2009 that after viciously refuting media stories of IDPs starving to death noted, “The Government is committed to ensure the welfare of the IDPs in the North, including the supply of food, medicines and other essentials. It is necessary to emphasize that there has been no case of any citizen of those parts dying of starvation, and the government will take all measures to prevent such a tragic occurrence.”
This callous hypocrisy informs the study of maps released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last Tuesday. HRW’s report notes that “a preliminary analysis of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery of the conflict zone that shows craters from the use of heavy weapons and the removal of thousands of likely structures used by internally displaced persons (IDPs) between May 6 and May 10.” On Thursday, we were on the map of the Security Council at the UN, for the first time ever. A day after the HRW report came news of heavy artillery and mortar attacks hitting a hospital and killing around 45 civilians. By Thursday, many of us had lost count of how many Tamils had died and how many attacks targeted the ‘safe zone’ – or whatever it is called and really is.
The dead at least can’t complain. UN OCHA released on Wednesday a map of IDP camps in Vavuniya as of 11 May 2009. There are no macabre images here, no eye-witness testimony to contest, no satellite imagery to parochially interpret, no video to deport journalists on account of, no easy fodder for spin. There are ten IDP camps plotted on the map. In all save one (which is also filled to capacity), there were around three or four times more IDPs than the camps could handle under international humanitarian standards, which the government never fails to fervently state it abides by. These camps are in fact schools or hostels converted to care for those displaced by war, and they are in fact cattle-sheds for Tamil civilians. As Laksundara, an author to the citizen journalism website Groundviews that I edit noted in April,
At the moment some of these camps have buildings and trees at the transit sites (these are schools which are converted into camps). But the purposely built sites like Menik farm hardly have any trees (as said before the land was cleared by bulldozers to accommodate the IDPs, allowing just a few trees here and there to remain). The IDPs cannot leave the area and find a shade to spend the day as they are confined by barbwire. In the absence of trees and shelter with tarpaulin roofs, the IDPs are left without proper protection against the sun and heat. It is equally inappropriate during the rainy season as it was seen in the past few weeks, since the water seeps through the tarpaulin sheet that is put to the ground and water also leaks through the roofing tarpaulin into the tent when the rain is heavy.
There are in Sri Lanka today around 55,100 families and just over 179,000 civilians who have fled the theatres of war only to enter hell. This growing number of IDPs and atrocious camp conditions are comparable to the now closed Hartisheik camp in Eastern Ethiopia for Somali refugees and the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, also for Somali refugees.
Our government lies when it tells us they are cared for and looked after and that government agencies were prepared to deal with the IDP influx. Our government lies when it assures us that the special needs of women, children and the elderly are taken care of. Our government lies when it assures us that it alone, without any help from NGOs and INGOs, can meet the needs of those displaced by the war and viciously attack NGOs who suggest otherwise. Channel 4’s recent footage from within IDP camps reveals a hidden reality only strengthened by the maps of shame published this week alone by HRW and UN OCHA. Our government lies when it says that independent media are given access to assess the humanitarian situation. The New York Times on 9 May published an article that stated Sri Lanka had banned 837 journalists, human rights officials and others from entering the country, an inconvenient fact that ridicules the Rajapakse regime’s avowed policy of allowing independent verification of ground conditions in the North.
The on-going massacre of civilians and the conditions of IDP camps both suggest that to talk about a post-war / post-LTTE future in Sri Lanka is premature at best. Far more pressing existential needs today cry out for attention. We are now the subject of serious UN Security Council and EU deliberations, despite the best efforts of Sri Lanka’s best and brightest in the diplomatic corps to prevent it. This alone suggests that the Rajapakse regime cannot contain its complicity in violence against civilians by lies and spin for much longer. However, a slap on the wrist in the form of a statement from the UN Security Council, I don’t believe, will stop the Army from their avowed goal of decimating the LTTE cadres and for its symbolic potential, capturing the last bit of land in their control. It will not stop the LTTE from allowing civilians safe passage out of harms way, or killing them indiscriminately.
We celebrated Vesak a week ago, yet our karuna and metta was self-referential and didn’t reach areas where it is needed the most in our Buddhist country. We must ask the Rajapakse regime, and ourselves, is the choice between slow death in a living hell and dying at the hands of the LTTE a choice at all?
Published in The Sunday Leader, 17 April 2009