Sunday, 6 September 2009

Visiting your family behind bars - but they've committed no crime

Followers of this blog will know of my connection to Sri Lanka and that I went back there this year for a holiday. I tried to use my time out there to find out as much as I could about the IDP camps the Tamils are being kept in following the end of the war. I didn't get to visit them although I have reason to believe that I may yet be able to. We shall see.

I have yet to blog on what I did find when I was out there but that's because there's a possibility of getting an article in a national newspaper which will obviously reach a wider audience. Meantime however, because nobody's allowed into the camps, those of us with concerns are left with speculation, stories from those who've managed to leave and, as you're about to hear, tales from people who've tried to make contact with their families living in the camps.

Today I met a family originally from Jaffna in Sri Lanka, now living in the Gorbals in Glasgow. They've been here for 8 years and are British Citizens. Mum, dad and 11 year old *Dharuna, a lovely articulate little girl all told me what happened to them in the summer.

Both mum and dad have relatives in the camps. In all they visited 7 camps and they still have no idea how their families really are. They've seen most of them, they've been within touching distance but they've yet to touch them. Dad's father and brother were killed by the government shelling as they slept. Dad wanted to comfort his family who survived. He wanted them to comfort him. All he needed was to be able to hug them but he couldn't because there were TWO high barbed wire fences a metre apart between him and his loved ones.

The drill is as follows: they arrive at the camp and have to queue for several hours with thousands of others desperate to set eyes on the families they've been separated from for upwards of three months now. Once all the ID cards and passports have been checked, they then have to queue for some hours more. They wait on average 4 hours before they can take their turn. The names of their family members are read out over the camp's loudspeakers and this is a ten minute warning. If they don't arrive within ten minutes, the visitors are sent to the back of the queue and the process begins all over again. Once their loved ones arrive, they have ten minutes to speak to them via the two 1-metre apart fences of barbed wire. They could pass over gifts (thoroughly checked lest you should be handing over mobile phones that can (a) contact the outside world and (b) take photographic evidence) but they have to be able to reach to the top of the fence and throw it so that it scales both fences. If their gifts, normally food, fall in between the fences, all they can do is try again as long as they can reach down to retrieve it without the barbed wire ripping their arm off. Otherwise, it will remain where it fell. They have ten minutes to talk and all the time the army stand on both sides, "staring at you" according to my 11 year old source, and of course with guns at the ready.

Added to that, the family describe how thousands of people are crushed together, herded in like cattle by the army. They describe people crying often hysterically and they tell me how, under the baking hot sun, little Dharuna becomes so ill she starts to vomit. No water is offered but the soldiers do, thankfully, move them forward to the front of the queue at this stage.

Dharuna's mum was getting upset as she talked about how the Tamil people had been through enough and surely now it was time to let them go home. When she got upset Dharuna told me her take on things. This is a little girl who's only really known Glasgow. She has a Glasgow accent. She has a Glasgow turn of phrase. For example, she told me what happened when the ten minutes was up. She said "the soldiers had these mad big wooden stick things and they started shouting at people and beating them with the mad sticks". (For non Glaswegians, all children here overuse the word "mad"!)

Some people had travelled for days and queued for 4 hours to wave across the barbed wire at their parents, children, siblings who, we must remember, have committed no crime and are not supposed to be in prison. Understandably they'd be upset when their ten minutes was up and you can understand them lingering a little. But lingering for a second apparently provoked the ire of the army and the production of the "mad" sticks.

Dharuna said she was very frightened and upset and although she'd always dreamed of her home country of Sri Lanka, she has vowed that she will "never go back there". She's adamant. I tell her we hope things will get better. She tells me it doesn't matter, "never ever" will she return.

I have to be careful what I say. I really want to go back to Sri Lanka. I want to be able to visit the camps. The Tamil people living in Glasgow who've been coming to see me want me to visit the camps. In my next post you will see why I need to be cautious if ever that is to happen - speaking out is not tolerated well in Sri Lanka. So, all I will say is that the above is what I have been told by a family who have been there and I have no reason to disbelieve them. Until the Sri Lankan Government allow independent monitors, journalists and people like myself free and unfettered access to the camps, what else do we have to judge it on?

This week I'm starting my attempt to open up a dialogue with the Sri Lankan Government about the conditions in the camps and particularly about the far too slow release of people back to their homes. Having been there recently, I have some cause for a little optimism and I do believe that all sides want to find lasting peace. Let's not forget Sri Lanka in amongst all the other turmoil in the world because it is a beautiful country with incredibly kind warm hearted people - Sinhalese AND Tamil - who've just lost their way a bit and become polarised in their arguments, in the 30 year war that ravaged their country but is, finally, at an end.

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