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Update: Humanitarian Catastrophe in Sri Lanka

by Ellyn Shander MD

These Tamil dead were among the scores of civilians killed last week when the Sri Lankan army bombed a school that was being used as a shelter for refugees.

Tensions have long existed between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority populations in Sri Lanka. But they began to veer into violence in 1972 when the Singhalese government declared that the national language would be Singhalese and the national religion Buddhism. These decrees effectively marginalized the Tamil minority in every way, as they were systematically denied access to universities, places in the government, and were widely discriminated against. Hostilities came to a head on July 23, 1983, when riots broke out that saw up to 3,000 Tamils killed and tens of thousands of Tamil homes and businesses destroyed. Many Tamils who had the means left the country in fear of their lives and their future.

Black July, as these events have come to be memorialized, is commonly seen as the beginning of armed conflict that has since killed 60,000 people, in violent clashes between the Singhalese government and the rebels who emerged from the Tamil minority, called the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east of this country on land they nhabited long before the English occupied this country they called “Ceylon”.

The Sri Lankan Army blockcade has trapped 200,000 Tamils in the Jaffna Penninsula, an area devastated by the Tsunami.

The December 2004 tsunami devastated this country, leveling the coast from the northern tip of the Tamil areas in Jaffna to the Singhalese southern city of Galle (see map above). In the wake of this natural disaster, I went to Sri Lanka as a doctor on a team providing care and grief counseling to the survivors. We headed North to the Tamil areas, where I met beautiful, kind, and gentle people who were so grateful for our support. They had already been traumatized by the civil war, and now devastated by the “big wave.” We reminded them of their dignity and ability to rebound and rebuild. I touched their hearts and in turn they touched mine. I took their pictures home with me. Six months later, when I returned alone to one particular fishing village for a follow up service trip, I was greeted with such joy, it was like visiting family. When that visit concluded, I left a piece of my heart there.

When former President Clinton made his overseas tsunami trips, he pledged aid to Sri Lanka, demanding that the Singhalese government find a way to equitably distribute the tsunami aid to Tamil areas as well. This created an uproar in the Sri Lankan government as they did not want aid to the civilians to go to the Tigers. Eventually the P-Tom agreement was signed between the Tigers and the government, clearing the way to deliver the aid to the Tamil civilians.

But it never happened! Within a month, the Sri Lankan government decided that this agreement was unconstitutional and the P-Tom agreement was shredded. Since then, very little aid has been delivered to the north and east and little reconstruction has been done. Widespread Tamil areas are still devastated, while in the Singhalese regions in the south, major areas have been developed as tourist attractions and Singhalese businesses are flourishing.

Although the Norwegian government had brokered a truce in 2002, more than 3,300 people have been killed in violent clashes. In January 2006, civil war again broke out and now the number of civilian deaths is climbing dramatically. An Amnesty International Report issued in February 2006 described the “Climate of Fear.” In August of this year, the government troops cornered 200,000 Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula, creating a humanitarian disaster. They are bombing the civilians indiscriminately. They have bombed the general hospital in Kilinochii, shelled refugee camps in eastern Sri Lanka and deliberately bombed the Chendholai orphanage killing 51 girls.

The government shut down the only road into the Tamil territory A-9, refusing to allow any medical supplies, food or humanitarian aid to travel to the north. They claim to be sending supplies by boat into the northern port of Jaffna, but reports from these areas indicate a dire situation where the population hovers near starvation. Furthermore, with the hospitals closed, and no medicines or supplies coming in, the victims of government bombings are left without treatment.

Norwegian Aid Minster Erik Solheim recently stated “This is very serious. Government forces fired at unarmed people with the aim of killing them.” The causalities are only mounting.

Recently talks in Geneva failed to come to an agreement to open the flow of aid to the trapped civilian population. In August government troops killed 18 NGOs working with a French relief organization. Now this month Doctors without Borders has had to leave the Tamil areas claiming that the government has made them a target. This has left the 200,000 trapped people without medicine, doctors and hospitals. The food shortage has people eating only one meal a day with severe rations. There are reports of children and older people fainting in the streets.

Government imposed curfews have prevented people from fishing or doing most other work, so they don’t have money to buy food that is shipped in but only for sale by the government. No free rations are being provided, despite the fact that the Tamil civilians are Sri Lankan citizens and as such they are the intended recipients of international tsunami relief.

The government has embarked on a course of actions that can only result in genocide. At this rate, soon there won’t be any Tamils left. Outside of the quarter million people trapped in the north, there is widespread kidnappings and killing of Tamil business men in Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, with a Singhalese majority. It is no longer safe for Tamils to travel throughout the country, as Bharat Bhushan detailed for an article recently published in the Calcutta Telegraph.

There have been protests by UNICEF, observers at the United Nations, and the Norwegians, but to no avail, as the killing only gets worse every day. Innocent people are being bombed, murdered and starved to death. Just last week a prominent Sri Lankan bishop joined the chorus with a letter to President Rajapakse urging the government to cease its attacks and re-open the roads to allow food and medical aid to reach the isolated region.

International pressure must be brought upon the Singhalese government to open A-9 and allow humanitarian aid to go through the elephant pass. And the government bombing of civilians must stop.

Former President Clinton has millions of dollars of tsunami aid that has yet to be delivered to the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Now that the mid-term elections are over, his influence in the region could get both parties to stop the fighting and start delivering the millions of dollars earmarked for this region.

Millions of Americans raised funds intended to provide relief through the regions devastated by the tsunami. We must not let this genocide go forward. I have contacted President Clinton and his foundation and begged them to intervene (read the letter here). I believe that he can make a difference. We must all try. The foundation website is and the email contact information for the person in charge of Sri Lankan relief is, and through his NYC office, the email contact is Letters addressed to President Clinton should be forwarded through these two email accounts.

Additionally, letters to senators and congressional representatives can also help focus attention before it is too late. This website provides a search and send function that will enable you to send emails to all your Senators and US Representatives. For those who wish to provide direct assistance, there is an effort underway by the International Medical Health Organization (IMHO), a US based charity made up of health care and non-medical volunteers from 20 states whose projects focus on improving the health and welfare of the people living in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka. It is described in an email you can read here. There is also an international online petition that can be signed and forwarded to others. Details are on the British Tamils Forum website.

Please add your voice to this cause: every email, letter and phone call will help. Please consider posting a description of any actions you take here as comments.

[New] *Amnesty International Calls for Urgent Action to Protect Civilians in Sri Lanka [READ]
[New] *Amnesty International Calls for Inquiry on Attacks on Internally Displaced Civilians [READ]
[New] * Catholic Weekly Newpaper issues “Concern for Humanitarian Crisis in Sri Lanka” [READ]
[New] * The BBC reported on “Children Abducted to Fight in Sri Lanka” [READ]
[New] * A group of NGO’s visited Vakarai to assess the situation. Read their report and photos.
[New] * Situation Report: November 28, 2006 [READ]
* US State Department Issues Statement on Behalf of Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors Conference Condemning Violence in Sri Lanka [READ]
* News Reports: From Reuters [READ]
* Australian Tamils Organize Boycott [READ]
* News Reports: From the BBC [READ]
* News Reports: From the Toronto Star [READ]
* Latest from the US State Department [READ]
* News Report: Tamil Appeal [READ]
* Situation Report: November 14, 2006 [READ]
* Personal Account of Batticaloa bombings [READ]

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