The nightmare of the nowhere people
It has been a sore point for some months now, the media highlighting the prevailing food shortages in Jaffna and the Government claiming that things are "normal".
"Normal" by Jaffna's below-par standards is not exactly the ideal that the Government must aim at establishing. The Commissioner General of Essential Services has given a list of food items and the prices they are available at. Yet, it is no secret that 'controlled prices' set by the Government are not what the ultimate consumer, the ordinary man on the street must pay in such situations. Reports say that a kilo of tea sells at Rs. 1,400, milk powder for Rs. 600. There may not be starvation, but scarcity is rampant.
It is an indisputable fact that in the territories that come under its writ, the Government has a duty to provide the citizenry with not just the bare essentials, but also other necessities of modern living, like electricity, decent habitation and sanitation, transport, schooling and health needs.
From the Jaffna peninsula, to the current theatre of war, the East, our Features section, the Plus this week highlights the wretched plight of the IDPs – the internally displaced persons – those whom we can describe as Sri Lanka's 'forgotten' citizens. As our stories reveal, they have been provided the bare essentials: a tent to sleep in, some food to eat. But lacking proper nutrition, decent sanitation and reduced to penury, hope that they can resume a normal life, for them seems an impossible dream.
According to independent surveys there are nearly one million Sri Lankan citizens in this plight. It is a shocking statistic. One in every 20 Sri Lankans is displaced – from homes, school, families and friends because of this on-going insurgency in the Northern and Eastern Provinces that encompasses 8 of the 24 (1/3rd) districts in Sri Lanka. Some 200,000 have been newly displaced since military operations were intensified to flush out the LTTE from the East, 600,000 are cut-off from Jaffna in the North, another 200,000 in other areas.
These people are not from one community – they belong to all the communities in the country.
They are not just numbers – they are real people and their stories of desperate escapes from the shelling and mortar attacks even as they saw their loved ones killed are harrowing.
The majority of those displaced have spent months, some even years in camps. Batticaloa alone now has 50 such 'temporary' camps to house them.
The Government's defence establishment has made no bones of the fact that their counter-terrorism military operations will continue despite all the hullabaloo over increasing disappearances, abductions and the deteriorating human rights record.
The international community is being accused of insensitivity by both sides. While one side maintains that they are not talking enough about the human rights situation, the other says that they are giving oxygen to terror groups by trying to restrain the Armed Forces in their quest to quell the evil forces of separatism, in this case, the violent methods adopted by the LTTE.
No self-respecting Government can allow a terrorist group to run amok in the country, but no self-respecting Government should disregard the law either. Once violence with impunity takes hold of a nation, it spirals downward towards virtual anarchy.
No doubt, there are hidden moves to bring Government officials to book for war crimes through canvassing via diplomatic channels, but the same enthusiasm is not shown in de-clawing the LTTE.
The victims, always, are those innocents caught in the crossfire – as we have reported in the PLUS. There is no one solution to these problems, but any Government ought to know that winning hearts and minds is a sine qua non to winning the war against separatism and terrorism.
If the lives of the people whom they 'liberate' from the clutches of the terrorists, are now no better than they were under them, then what is the victory for these hapless citizens?
The Government's civilian machinery is not moving at the pace its Security Forces may be inching forward to flush out the guerrillas from townships. The situation demands a much bigger 'offensive' to be launched by the Government to ease the discomfort of these one million IDPs.
International agencies like UNICEF keep complaining about what's happening, but their own machinery in 'correcting wayward youth bent on taking the gun into their hands' has been a sorry story all over the world.
The Government and indeed every Sri Lankan have to wake up to the plight of the displaced, these fellow citizens, whose aspirations are no different to people elsewhere in the country….food, shelter, a decent life for their families and a sense of dignity. Is it too much to ask? What crime have they committed to be left to languish in such dismal conditions?