Priscila, Tina and I spent part of yesterday with our colleagues over at Human Rights Watch, and at the same time as being generous with their expertise, time and hospitality, they were preparing to release this report and slideshow, calling on the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to bring an immediate end to the "ongoing slaughter of civilians".
Over the past few weeks, the Sri Lankan armed forces have won military victories against the LTTE, penning them into an ever-shrinking area on the northern coast of the country. This offensive has had a terrible impact particularly on civilians caught in this region. According to the HRW report, civilians in this area have been prevented by the LTTE from fleeing the fighting, and are being swept into forced recruitment and forced labour. The Sri Lankan armed forces are reported to be shelling areas within this zone that contains dense concentrations of civilians - thousands of casualties and fatalities have been reported. Many of those managing to flee into government-controlled areas are being held in "welfare villages", essentially internment camps (depicted in the slideshow below), with some being taken for detention and possible enforced disappearance.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Sri Lankan government and
the LTTE to act immediately to stop the ongoing slaughter of civilians. Both
parties should facilitate the creation of a humanitarian corridor and otherwise
respect the laws of war. The LTTE should allow civilians to leave the war zone
and the SLA should stop shelling near densely populated areas, safe zones and
hospitals. Those displaced civilians who reach the government side should be
assisted but not interned. And the government should permit independent media
and human rights organizations to go to the conflict area. [...]
Instead of using its victories in the field to promote a
more open and democratic nation, the Sri Lankan government has conducted a
cynical campaign to prevent all independent public coverage of its military
operations and the plight of civilians caught up in the war. While decrying
LTTE abuses, it has kept out the media and human rights organizations that
could report on them - and on government abuses. It has kept displaced persons
who could describe the artillery bombardments locked up in camps and hospitals.
It has traded the well-being of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan citizens for
protection from international scrutiny. With civilian casualties mounting, it
has sought to bury its abuses.
In the face of this systematic suppression of information, it's crucial to ensure that stories and evidence of abuses - where they exist - are collected and compiled, and where it is safe to do so, shared more widely to draw attention to the human impact that HRW and others highlighting. Tools like the Hub and Ushahidi represent one route for collecting and safeguarding these resources. If you know of, or come across, images, footage or testimonies out of Sri Lanka at this time, please let us know below, by email, or here.
If you're looking to learn more, IRIN, HRW and AI are a crucial starting point. Entry points into local perspectives and responses include Vikalpa, Groundviews, and the Center for Policy Alternatives (though their website is currently inaccessible). See also local humanitarian organisation Sarvodaya's co-signed letter on the humanitarian situation. Please do add more resources through the comments field below.