War refugees interned in camps built by donors

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – In just six months, one of the world's largest camps for war refugees has been carved out of the jungles of northern Sri Lanka, complete with banks, post offices, schools and a supermarket. But no one is allowed out, and hardly anyone is allowed in.

Aid workers and foreign diplomats increasingly fear that Manik Farm, a facility they helped build, is actually a military-run internment camp where 210,000 ethnic Tamil civilians displaced by the civil war are being held indefinitely. Government memos and U.N. documents obtained by The Associated Press, as well as interviews with more than two dozen aid workers, U.N. officials, diplomats and rights advocates, detail how the international community poured tens of millions of dollars into these camps, despite their concerns.

"At best, it is at the edge of all kinds of international principles," said one Western diplomat based in Colombo, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government. "But more likely, it is illegal."

The documents and interviews also reveal what appear to be worsening conditions at the camp, which houses civilians displaced in the final, bloody battles of the quarter-century civil war that ended two months ago.

In June, chicken pox was rampant and cases of typhoid, tuberculosis, skin and respiratory infections, hepatitis A, scabies and diarrhea have begun cropping up, according to U.N. reports. More than 35 percent of children under 5 are suffering from wasting, or acute malnutrition, according to a July 3 government presentation leaked to the AP.

Tents meant for five are packed with up to 15 people, water is scarce and the seasonal rains expected in the coming weeks could create a health nightmare, several foreign aid workers said. Relatives are not allowed to visit, although many gather at the barbed wire fence hoping to get messages to their loved ones. Opposition lawmakers are barred as well, and independent journalists are only allowed in on rare, military-guided tours.

Signs of unrest are growing. Several weeks ago, inmates held a protest demanding they be reunited with family members in other fenced-off sections of the camp, aid workers said. Military troops shot in the air to disperse the angry residents.

The Sri Lankan government has branded Manik Farm a "welfare village," where children can go to school, parents can get vocational training and those traumatized by the war can get medical and social care. Sri Lankan officials say most of the refugees will be able to return to their homes by the end of the year, and that they will open up the camps after they screen out former Tamil Tiger rebels who could stir up trouble.

However, aid workers say the military officer in charge told them almost no war refugees would go home this year, and the screening process is dragging on, with even civilians who fled the war in January still confined to the camps.

Mano Ganesan, an ethnic Tamil parliamentarian, said the government sealed the camps to keep those inside from telling the world about the final months of the war, when human rights groups say the military killed thousands of civilians with heavy shelling.

"There is no other logical reason to understand the government's position," he said.


The civil war in Sri Lanka pitted the government of this island off the southern coast of India against one of the world's most sophisticated insurgencies, which was fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority. The battle raged across the Tamil Tigers' shadow state in the north. The U.N. says the conflict the U.N. killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people since 1983.

By last August, government forces appeared to finally have the upper hand. Anticipating a wave of civilians fleeing the fighting, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees drew up a three-page memo Aug. 29 setting out the conditions it would require to help Sri Lanka set up displacement camps. The camps should be run by a civilian administration, and the displaced should be guaranteed "full and unhindered freedom of movement," the memo noted.

In January, the government asked international donors to help build five camps — with 39,000 semi-permanent homes, 7,800 toilets and 390 community centers — to hold civilians for up to three years.

Aid workers feared they were being asked to build military-run prison camps to indefinitely detain hundreds of thousands of civilians, according to an official who took part in meetings with the government. They decided to provide temporary tents instead of shacks and to make only a three-month commitment to the camps.

In four days in the middle of April, more than 100,000 civilians escaped the war zone. The same month, a U.N. document reported that armed soldiers and some paramilitary groups were stationed inside the camps. In a private memo written at that time, Walter Kaelin, a senior U.N. official, demanded a time frame for the civilians to be freed from the camps. By the end of the war in May, nearly 300,000 civilians were living in schools and displacement camps. The largest was Manik Farm, so densely populated it would stand as the second-largest city in the country. Aid groups put up 43,000 shelters and tents, 8,761 latrines, 339 places to bathe, 12 nutrition centers and 132 temporary learning spaces for students, according to the U.N.

"Every time I go to the camps more people ask me, 'When are we going to be let out?'"