Showing up an ‘isolated silent death’

by
27 February 2007

Christian leaders are highlighting a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, reports Stephanie Boucher

“Open prison”? people queue at a government food centre in Urumpirai, Jaffna. Those in employment pay for provisions, while others get them free jebi

“Open prison”? people queue at a government food centre in Urumpirai, Jaffna. Those in employment pay for provisions, while others get them free jebi

IN Sri Lanka, an audacious pastoral visit by two Christian academics has highlighted a silent humanitarian crisis. Civilians in the northern peninsula of Jaffna are quietly starving, amid the clamour of warring factions.

Jaffna, home to 600,000 Tamils, is normally linked to the rest of Sri Lanka by a road known as the A9. In August last year, the A9 was closed, after an upsurge of ethnic violence between the Tamils and the ruling Sinhala majority.

It was to bring relief and fellowship to some of the region’s beleaguered population that the visit was organised in December through the Theological College of Lanka (TCL). TCL is set in the south, near Kandy, and trains Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians as clergy or lay pastors. It unites students from both sides of the conflict that has torn the country apart for more than two decades, and can field an extensive network of contacts in both camps.

Two staff members undertook the six-day mission to help former students who are now Methodist and Anglican clerics in Jaffna, to whom they remain pastorally committed. The Revd Keerthisiri Fernando, an Anglican senior lecturer, who is a Sinhala, and the Revd Albert Jebanesan, the college’s Methodist Principal and a Tamil, braved military checkpoints to share hope, prayer, and supplies with their colleagues. What they saw filled them with disquiet for the future of the peace process.

The ceasefire that was signed in 2002 between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government of Sri Lanka is now widely believed to exist only on paper. After bombings, the displacement of people, random killings, and accusations of disappearances and torture, the conflict is seen on the ground as a full-scale war.

Christian leaders have spoken up during the past year to condemn attacks on buses and refugee camps. But Jaffna’s suffocation after the closure of the A9 has received scant international attention. The A9 links Jaffna to Kandy. It was shut off by the LTTE for six years before the ceasefire, and, when it reopened, the Tamil Tigers began levying tolls from its users. Now it is the government’s turn to enforce the road’s closure, arguably in the hope of drying up LTTE funds, as well as blocking the flow of militants along its route.

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Additional air and sea blockades have led one commentator to describe Jaffna as an open prison. Food, fuel, and medicine shortages are exacerbated by the restrictions on civilians travelling in and out of the zone. All NGOs, apart from the International Red Cross, are denied access to Jaffna.

While the LTTE and the government blame each other for the resulting humanitarian crisis, the people at its centre survive on rice and dhal, and are running out of essentials.

Mr Fernando and Dr Jebanesan eventually reached Jaffna by air, after paying more than 20 times what the journey would have cost by road. It was no small matter to take an obvious ethnic Sinhala civilian, as Mr Fernando is, to the Tamil heartland, where his fellows are only present as occupying soldiers. He said: “There was risk, but among friends I felt comfortable. The army were curious about me.”

He and Dr Jebanesan suffered delays while the military searched people and luggage, and photographed every passenger. They hung on to their bulging suitcases, twice over the weight limit, only after much smiling and batting of clerical eyelashes. Crammed inside were milk powder, instant tea and coffee, soap, analgesics, and drugs for diabetes and heart conditions.

Mr Fernando said: “Almost all the grocery shops were only half opened, or closed. The few people on the road had tired and anxious faces. Queue culture was a visible and inescapable reality in Jaffna. The sound of shelling every night vibrated the doors and windows of the buildings.”

They listened to complaints about the lack of infant food, the loss of jobs and income, and the need for military clearance to travel out of Jaffna, with no guarantee of return. Essential commodities have rocketed to up to ten times their value elsewhere in the country. Dr Jebanesan lamented: “Civilian life has come to a standstill, without any forward movement.”

A curfew operates from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m., but few people venture out after 5 p.m. Such is the tension that Mr Fernando was reprimanded by his host, the Archdeacon of Jaffna, the Ven. Philip Nesakumar, for returning one evening at 7 p.m. Mr Nesakuma said: “People are leaving Jaffna with their families. There is no future for them here.”

Worst of all, however, is the sense of hopelessness, as the daily round of queuing and hunger takes its toll. Mr Fernando continued: “People seem to be becoming indifferent to a negotiated settlement, such is the exhaustion.”

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Appeals have been made for the government to release its stranglehold on Jaffna, and to end what a group of Roman Catholic priests has termed the region’s “isolated and silent death”. A spokesman for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which monitors the ceasefire, said: “The Mission has repeatedly urged parties to find a way to open the road, as it is one of the fundamental issues of the ceasefire agreement.”

Dr Jebanesan commented: “Politicians are concerned about the economic costs of war. Yet it is the human cost of the war that should be foremost in their minds.”

Relief cannot come soon enough for six-year-old Thaniya Nesakumar, the Archdeacon’s daughter. She helped a fatherless classmate, who has no one to stand in the bread queue for her, saying: “I broke [my] bread and shared with her. I realised it was the same bread that Daddy breaks in church — I broke it in my small classroom.”

Stephanie Boucher is a writer on scientific and environmental issues.

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